There were no signs of politics winding down for the summer break during the month of June, as both domestic and international affairs continued to prevent us from sinking into a state of political serenity. Indeed, Michael Gove had another attempt at trying to reform our GCSE system, rather ensuring that June was no different to most months in UK politics, and meaning that the month instead came to be marked out by the GCHQ-PRISM intelligence scandal, and the exposure of a cover up by the CQC of an investigation into baby deaths at a hospital trust. International affairs continued to revolve around the enduring and increasingly complex issue of Syria, with the USA taking the first step along the road of intervention by providing weaponry assistance to rebel forces, although the response to the G8 conference at Loghe Erne was focused more upon a transatlantic trade deal, and what David Cameron was eating and tweeting, rather than a comprehensive solution to the Syrian question.
However, it seems as though the nation would rather know what the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, has been eating, rather than the leader of his party, and whether the foods he is consuming are in any way linked to his consistently unpopular policies. Specifically in the case of this piece, I refer to his fourth attempt to reform our GCSE system, which has been met by hostility, especially amongst young people. Gove’s proposals include: the establishment of predominantly end of course exams, rather than the modular system which is currently in place, an alteration in the marking of GCSEs from our A*-G system to a numbered method, and for the vast majority of coursework and controlled assessment to be scrapped. Gove boldly announced that "By making GCSEs more demanding, more fulfilling, and more stretching we can give our young people the broad, deep and balanced education which will equip them to win in the global race,” sentiments not shared by many who pay an interest in educational affairs, especially as there is not a firm definition of what this ‘global race’ actually is, never mind how his policies can help us to win it. Indeed, Gove’s defence of these reforms seems to diverge considerably from most individuals. Our own commentator Joe Massarella stated that instead of these reforms ensuring that education is more stretching and fulfilling, they will cause stress and put excessive pressure on students. Furthermore, Robert Walmsley is almost certainly right to assert that Gove’s plan to change marking to a numbered system is nothing more than a rebrand, with the likelihood of any tangible positive consequences being minimal. Gove’s plans also seem to be narrowing education into a one size fits all system, punishing those who underperform due to the pressure of exams and not giving them a chance to redeem themselves through resits or coursework. Mr Gove’s reforms will certainly ensure that GCSEs are more demanding, but his assertion that they will be increasingly ‘balanced’ is far wide of the mark and the need for a fifth set GCSE reforms is not unrealistic.
Gove’s reforms did not create the greatest political controversy during the month of June however. Rather, one of the challengers for this award was the GCHQ-Prism scandal, caused by NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden who revealed to the Guardian that GCHQ, one of Britain’s largest intelligence agencies, could have had access to the US internet programme Prism since 2010. Prism has the potential to access and store the private information of individuals from websites such as Facebook and Google, theoretically meaning that the government could have built up a detailed picture of us and our lives without our approval or knowledge. These concerns have since been downplayed by experts, who have expressed doubt regarding the storage capability of such programmes, and by Foreign Secretary William Hague, who stated that “Any data obtained by us from the United States involving UK nationals is subject to proper UK statutory controls and safeguards.” Nevertheless, the USA has issued criminal charges against Snowden, including espionage and theft of government property, and is leading a pursuit of him across the globe. He is now an enemy of the state, but it could be said, as pointed out by James Phillips, that he certainly is not an enemy of the people.
The month of June also saw revelations regarding the Care Quality Commission, and suggestions that they suppressed a report investigating an unusually high amount of infant mortalities in the Furness General Hospital in Cumbria because it was too critical of the CQC. As suggested by Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, this situation shows a fundamental flaw within the CQC at the time, and within the individuals at the head of the CQC. The questions the public are asking now are whether the CQC can be trusted? If so, how can this be proven? And if not, how does the organisation need to be reformed to allow it to function in the way it was intended? These are profound questions which Mr Hunt must find answers to, and with a so-called ‘NHS Crisis’ on his hands, the Health Secretary must find an extraordinary amount of gumption to get our health services back on course before the end of this parliament.
Moving on to international affairs, and it was recently revealed that the USA will send arms to Syria within a month to aid the cause of the Free Syrian Army. The groups that will receive these weapons are said to be ‘moderate’ and ‘separate from al-Qaeda forces’. Nevertheless, it is difficult to observe that this is not merely history repeating itself. Indeed, the US armed the Mujahedeen (many of whom came to become part of al-Qaeda) in Afghanistan during the 1980s, much in the same way as in Vietnam- with America providing weapons and communications to the Vietminh political party during WW2 before waging war with the ‘Democratic Liberation Front’ (Vietcong) after the war. Surely there can be no assurances that this situation will not reoccur in the case of Syria, especially since the USA will almost certainly not have control over these weapons after they leave the nation.
The issue of Syrian intervention is a problematic one, firstly due to a lack of international agreement over any definitive plan of action, or even which side to support; demonstrated as President Putin asserted that the West should not be supporting people who “not only kill their enemies but cut open their bodies and eat their innards before the public and cameras.” And secondly due to ineffective Western intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, and increasingly forceful claims that liberal interventionism should not be the prerogative of the West, expressed by Daniel Hannan MEP as he questions why should it be Britain that intervenes? Why not Bolivia or Bangladesh or Belgium or Botswana? These are arguments which have been taken increasingly seriously by those in power, but with increasing American influence in Syria it could be only a matter of time before the rest of the West follows suit.
Shifting from current affairs to Backbench affairs, and I have decided to award Backbench Article of the Month for June to Adam Isaacs and his article ‘Governments are not the problem. We are.’ This article skilfully turned the debate on government intelligence to focus on our behaviour as a society and our unrelenting preoccupation with the ‘megalomania of nothingness.’ A preoccupation which leads most individuals not to call for a serious and rational debate on the excessive powers of the state, but rather to continue proliferating personal details over the internet in a self-absorbed daze. A refreshing and insightful analysis of our modern society framed in the context of the government intelligence scandal.
Finally, what I want to mention in this editorial is a new section of Backbench which we hope to introduce during July. A few months ago I introduced the concept of PoliticsMatters; a belief that in order to increase political engagement we must highlight and discuss how our political system needs to change. Indeed, change cannot occur through inaction, the reasons for apathy are multiple and complex and will continue to be largely overlooked by those in power without their widespread recognition. These ideas are the basis of this new section of Backbench, one which will look to integrate the views of as many people as possible, and one which, ultimately, aims to ensure that the politically engaged are no longer a social minority.