Niall Ferguson: Civil and Uncivil Societies
(Recorded at The Royal Society of Edinburgh and first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and the BBC World Service on Tuesday, 10 July 2012.)
SUE LAWLEY: Hello and welcome to the last in this year’s series of BBC Reith Lectures. Today we’re at the Royal Society of Edinburgh – Scotland’s national academy - founded in 1783 at the height of the Scottish Enlightenment - a period when Scotland played a leading part in the development of European thought. It’s a fitting place to finish because our lecturer Niall Ferguson is a Scotsman, and he’s proud of it.
His subject, The Rule of Law and its Enemies, has tackled important-but-controversial issues about the future of the Western world’s democracies. Are the institutions that helped build and sustain them, now in a state of dangerous decline? Are they failing to provide us with the right economic and legal structures that we need in order to grow and prosper?
Today he turns his attention to the bedrock of our existence – our civil society. Ladies and gentleman, to give us his views on Civil and Uncivil Societies, please welcome the BBC Reith Lecturer 2012, Professor Niall Ferguson.
Niall Ferguson: Although we’re in my native Scotland, I want to begin with a story from Wales. I tend to think of Wales as Scotland Lite - so the story might equally well be a Scottish one. Nearly ten years ago I bought a house on the coast of South Wales. With its rugged, windswept Atlantic coastline, its rain-soaked golf courses, its remnants of industrial greatness and its green hills just visible through the drizzle, it reminded me a lot of where I grew up, in Ayrshire - only slightly warmer, nearer Heathrow airport and with a rugby team more likely to beat England. (Audience Laughter)
I bought the house mainly to be beside the sea - but there was a catch. The lovely stretch of coastline in front of it was hideously strewn with rubbish. Thousands of plastic bottles littered the sands and rocks. Plastic bags fluttered in the wind, caught on the thorns of the Burnet roses.
Dismayed, I asked the locals who’s responsible for keeping the coastline clean?
“Well, the council is supposed to do it, down by here,” one of them explained, “but they don’t do nothing about it, do they?”
This was not so much Under Milk Wood as Under Milk Carton. Infuriated, and perhaps evincing the first symptoms of an obsessive-compulsive disorder, I took to carrying and filling black bin-liners whenever I went for a walk. But it was a task far beyond the capacity of one man. And that was when it happened: I asked for volunteers.
Well, the first beach clear-up was a modest affair. The second was more of a success - the sun actually shone, as it sometimes, very occasionally, does. It was when the local branch of the Lions Club became involved, however, that the breakthrough came. I had never heard of the Lions Club. I learned that it’s originally an American association, not unlike The Rotary Club - both were founded by Chicago businessmen about a century ago and both are secular networks whose members dedicate their time to various good causes.
The Lions brought a level of organisation and motivation that far exceeded my earlier improvised efforts. As a result of their involvement, the shoreline was transformed. The plastic bottles were bagged and properly disposed of; the roses were freed from their ragged polythene wrappings.
Together, spontaneously, without any public sector involvement, without any profit motive, without any legal obligation or power, we had turned a depressing dumping ground back into a beauty spot. Now I ask myself: How many other problems could be solved in this simple and yet satisfying way?
In these lectures, I have tried to open up some long sealed black boxes: the one labelled democracy, the one labelled capitalism, and the one labelled the rule of law. Tonight I want to unlock the black box labelled civil society.
Properly understood, it is the realm of voluntary associations - institutions established by citizens with an objective other than private profit. These can range from schools - about which more later - to clubs dedicated to the full range of human activities, from acrobatics to zoology, by way of beach clearing. There was a time when the average Briton or American belonged to a startlingly large number of clubs and societies.
Today, that’s no longer the case. I want to ask how far it is possible for a truly free nation to flourish in the absence of a vibrant civil society. And I want to cast doubt on the fashionable idea that the new social networks of the Internet are in any sense a substitute for real networks of the sort that helped me clear my local beach.
“In no country in the world,” declared Alexis de Tocqueville in the first book of his Democracy in America “has the principle of association been more successfully used or applied to a greater multitude of objects than in America…The citizen of the United States is taught from infancy to rely upon his own exertions in order to resist the evils and the difficulties of life.”
Tocqueville saw America’s political associations as an indispensable counterweight to the tyranny of the majority in modern democracy. But it was the non-political associations that really fascinated him:
“Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite. Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small… if it is a question of bringing to light a truth or developing a sentiment with the support of a great example, they associate.”
This is a justly famous passage, as is Tocqueville’s amusing contrast between the way American citizens banded together to campaign against alcohol abuse and with the approach to social problems in his native land:
“[I]f those hundred thousand men of the American Temperance Society had lived in France, each of them would have addressed himself individually to the government, begging it to oversee the nation’s wine bars.”
Tocqueville didn’t exaggerate 19th Century America’s love of voluntary associations. Yet just as he’d feared the associational vitality of the early United States has since been significantly diminished.
In his best-selling book Bowling Alone, my Harvard colleague Robert Putnam detailed the drastic declines, between around 1960 or 1970 and the late 1990s, in a long list of indicators of social capital:
• Attendance at a public meeting on town or school affairs: down 35 per cent.
• Service as an officer of a club or organisation: down 42 per cent.
• Service on a committee for a local organisation: down 39 per cent.
• Membership of Parent-Teachers Associations: down 61 per cent.
• The average membership rate for 32 national chapter-based associations: down by almost 50 per cent.
• Membership rates for men’s bowling leagues: down 73 per cent.
If the decline of American civil society is so far advanced, what hope is there for Europeans? The final publications of the recently discontinued Citizenship Survey for England made for truly dismal reading. In 2009-2010:
• Only 1 in 10 people had any involvement in decision-making about local services or in the provision of these services (for example, being a school governor or a magistrate).
• Only a quarter of people participated in any kind of formal volunteering at least once a month - of which most either organised or helped to run an event, usually a sporting event, or participated in raising money for one.
• The share of people informally volunteering at least once a month - for example to help elderly neighbours - fell to 29 per cent, down from 35 per cent the previous year. The share giving informal help at least once a year fell from 62 to 54 per cent.
• Charitable giving continued its decline since 2005.
What is happening? Well, for Putnam, it is primarily technology. First television, then the Internet - that has been the death of traditional associational life. But I take a different view. Facebook and its ilk create social networks that are huge - but weak. With 900 million active users – nine times the number four years ago – Facebook’s network is a vast tool enabling like-minded people to exchange like-minded opinions about, well, what they like.
Maybe, as Jared Cohen and Eric Schmidt argue, the consequences of such exchanges will indeed be revolutionary – though just how far Google or Facebook really played a decisive role in the Arab Spring is, I think, debatable. After all, Libyans did rather more than just un-friend Colonel Gaddafi. But I doubt very much that online communities are a substitute for traditional forms of association.
Could I have cleared the beach by poking my Facebook friends or creating a new Facebook group? I doubt it. A recent study revealed that most users in fact treat Facebook as a way to maintain contact with existing friends - often ones they no longer see regularly because they no longer live nearby.
The students surveyed were two and half times more likely to use Facebook this way than to initiate connections with strangers – which is what I had to do to clear the beach. It is not technology that has hollowed out civil society. It is something Tocqueville himself anticipated, in what is perhaps the most powerful passage in the whole of Democracy in America. Here he vividly imagines a future society in which associational life has died:
“The first thing that strikes the observation is an innumerable multitude of men, all equal and alike, incessantly endeavouring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives. Each of them, living apart, is as a stranger to the fate of all the rest; his children and his private friends constitute to him the whole of mankind. As for the rest of his fellow citizens, he is close to them, but he does not see them; he touches them, but he does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone …
“Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood…
Tocqueville was surely right. Not technology, but the state – with its seductive promise of security from the cradle to the grave – was the real enemy of civil society. For Tocqueville, it would be fatal for “the government … to take the place of associations”.
“Sentiments and ideas renew themselves,” he wrote, “the heart is enlarged, and the human mind is developed only by the reciprocal action of men upon one another.”
Amen to that. And may any future independent Scotland act accordingly.
To see just how right that wise Frenchman was, ask yourself - how many clubs do you belong to?
For my part, I count three London clubs, one in Oxford, one in New York and one in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I am a deplorably inactive member, but I pay my dues and use the sports facilities, the dining facilities and the guest rooms several times a year. I give regularly, though not enough, to two charities. I belong to one gymnasium. I support a football club – no longer, I hasten to add, the illustrious Scottish club recently and ignominiously forced into liquidation. I am probably most active as an alumnus of the principal educational institutions I attended in my youth: the Glasgow Academy and Magdalen College, Oxford. I also regularly give time to the schools my children attend, as well as to the university where I teach. Let me explain to you why I am so partial to these independent educational institutions.
Now, be warned: the view I am about to state is highly unfashionable. At a lunch held by The Guardian newspaper, I elicited gasps of horror when I uttered the following words: “In my opinion, the best institutions in the British Isles today are the independent schools”. Needless to say, those who gasped loudest had all attended such schools.
If there is one educational policy I should like to see adopted in Scotland as well as in England and Wales, it would be a policy that aimed to increase significantly the number of private educational institutions and, at the same time, to establish programmes of vouchers, bursaries and scholarships to allow a substantial number of children from lower income families to attend them. Of course, this is the kind of thing that the Left reflexively denounces as elitist. Even some Conservatives, like George Walden, regard private schools as a cause of inequality - institutions so pernicious that they should be abolished. Let me explain to you why such views are utterly wrong.
For about a hundred years, there’s no doubt, the expansion of public education was a good thing. As Peter Lindert has pointed out, schools were the exception that proved Tocqueville’s rule, for it was the American states that led the way in setting up local taxes to fund universal and indeed compulsory schooling after 1852. With few exceptions, widening the franchise elsewhere in the world led swiftly to the adoption of similar systems. This was economically important, because the returns to universal education were very high: literate and numerate people are much more productive workers.
But we need to recognise the limits of public monopolies in education, especially for societies that have long ago achieved mass literacy. The problem is that public monopoly providers of education suffer from the same problems that afflict monopoly providers of anything: quality declines because of lack of competition and the creeping power of vested producer interests.
Now, I am not arguing here for private schools against state schools. I am arguing for both - because biodiversity is preferable to monopoly. A mix of public and private institutions with meaningful competition favours excellence – that is why American universities, which operate within an increasingly global competitive system, are the best in the world – 21 out of the world’s top 30. While American high schools, in a localised monopoly system, are generally rather bad. Witness the most recent scores from PISA - the Programme for International Student Assessment for mathematical attainment at age 15. Would Harvard be Harvard if it had at some point been nationalised by either the State of Massachusetts or the Federal Government? You know the answer.
In the United Kingdom, we have the opposite system: it is the universities that have essentially been reduced to agencies of a government-financed National Higher Education Service – despite the advent in England and Wales of top-up fees that are still below what the best institutions should be charging. Whereas, there is a lively, and financially unconstrained, independent sector in secondary education.
The results? Apart from the elite, which retain their own resources and / or reputations, most UK universities are in a state of crisis. Only seven made it into The Times Higher Education Supplement’s latest global Top 50 - happily, including the University of Edinburgh, just. Yet we boast some of the finest secondary schools on the planet.
The apologists for traditional state education need to grasp a very simple point: by providing ‘free’ state schooling that is generally of mediocre quality, you incentivise the emergence of a really good private system - since nobody is going to pay between £10,000 and £30,000 a year for an education that is just a wee bit better than the free option.
It is, I think you’ll agree, rather ironic that the policies being introduced to address the problem of low quality public education in England are the responsibility of a Scotsman. Of course, Michael Gove picked up the idea from a Fettes lad named Blair (Audience Laughter).
Turning failing schools into self-governing academies. In just two years, the number of academies has gone from around 200 to approaching half of all secondary schools in England. Schools like Mossbourne Academy in Hackney, or Durand Academy, a primary in Stockwell, show what can be achieved even in impoverished neighbourhoods when the dead hand of local authority control is removed.
Even more promising are the new free schools being set up by parents, teachers, and others like my old friend Toby Young, who has finally worked out the real way to win friends and influence people.
Notice, that these schools are not selective, they remain state funded, but their increased autonomy has swiftly lead to much higher standards of both discipline and learning.
There are many on the left who deplore these developments. Many Labour MPs would happily disown the very idea of academies. Free schools and academies are conspicuous by their absence here in Scotland, yet they are part of a global trend.
Many people erroneously believe that Scandinavia is a place where the old fashioned welfare state is alive and well. In reality, Sweden and Denmark have been pioneers of educational reform. Thanks to a bold scheme of decentralisation and vouchers, the number of independent schools has soared in Sweden. Denmark’s free schools are independently run and receive a government grant per pupil, but are able to charge fees and raise funds in other ways if they can justify doing so in terms of results.
Today in the United States, there are more than two thousand charter schools – like English academies, publicly funded but independently run – bringing choice in education to around two million families in some of the country’s poorest urban areas. Organisations like Success Academy have to endure vilification and intimidation from the U.S. teachers’ unions precisely because the higher standards at their charter schools pose such a threat to the status quo of under-performance and under-achievement.
In New York City’s public schools, 62 per cent of third, fourth and fifth graders passed their maths exams last year.
The latest figure at Harlem Success Academy was 99 per cent. For science it was 100 per cent - and no, this was not because the charter schools cherry-pick the best students or attract the most motivated parents. Students are admitted to Harlem Success by lottery. They do better because the school is both accountable and autonomous.
There is however, a further step that still needs to be taken, even by Michael Gove. That step is to increase the number of schools that are truly independent, in the sense of being privately funded and truly free – in the sense of being free to select pupils.
Significantly 6 out of 10 academy heads said in a recent survey that the national agreement on pay and conditions prevents them from paying effective teachers more money, or extending the school day to give weaker pupils extra tuition.
There are no such inhibitions about private education elsewhere. In Sweden, companies like Kunskapsskolan - The Knowledge School – are educating tens of thousands of pupils. In Brazil, private school chains like Objetivo, COC and Pitagoras are teaching literally hundreds of thousands of students.
But perhaps the most remarkable case of all is India. There, as James Tooley has shown, the best hope of a decent education in the slums of cities like Hyderabad comes from private schools like the imaginatively named Royal Grammar School, Little Nightingale’s High School or Firdaus Flowers Convent School. Tooley and his researchers have found similar small-scale private school movements in parts of Africa too. Invariably, they are a response to atrociously bad public schools, where class sizes are absurdly large and teachers are frequently asleep or absent.
The problem in Britain is not that there are too many private schools. The problem is that there are too few. And if their charitable status is ultimately revoked, there will be even fewer. Only around 7 per cent of British teenagers are in private schools, about the same proportion as in the United States.
If you want to know one of the reasons why Asian teenagers do so much better than their British and American peers in standardised tests, it’s this: private schools educate more than a quarter of pupils in Macao, Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan and Japan. The average PISA maths score for those places is ten per cent higher than for the UK and the U.S. The gap between them and us is as large as the gap between us and Turkey. And guess what? The share of Turkish students in private schools is below four per cent.
Private education benefits more people than just the elite. In a recent article my Harvard colleague Martin West and Ludwig Wustmann demonstrated that - and I quote:
“A ten per cent increase in enrolment at private schools improves country’s mathematics test scores by almost half a year’s worth of learning. A ten per cent increase in private school enrolment also reduces total education spending per student by five per cent of the OECD average.”
In other words, more private education means higher quality and more efficient education for everyone.
A perfect illustration is the way Wellington School is now sponsoring a publicly funded academy. Another is the way schools, like Rugby, and Glasgow Academy, are expanding their bursary schemes, aiming to increase the proportion of pupils whose fees are covered from the schools own resources.
The education revolution of the 20th Century was that basic education became available for most people in democracies. The education revolution of the 21st Century will be that good education will become available for an increasing proportion of children. If you’re against that, then you’re the true elitist: you’re the one who wants to keep poor kids in lousy schools.
The bigger story I am telling, using education as the example, is that over the past 50 years governments encroached too far on the realm of civil society. That had its benefits where, as in the case of primary education, there was insufficient private provision. But there were real costs, too. Like Tocqueville, I believe that spontaneous local activism by citizens is better in than central state action not just in terms of its results, but more importantly in terms of its effect on us as citizens. For true citizenship is not just about voting, earning and staying on the right side of the law.
It is also about participating in the troop – the wider group beyond our families – which is precisely where we learn how to develop and enforce rules of conduct. In short, to govern ourselves; to educate our children; to care for the helpless; to fight crime; to clear the beach of rubbish.
Since the phrase big society entered the political lexicon, abuse has been heaped upon it. Most recently, the Archbishop of Canterbury called it, and I quote: “aspirational waffle designed to conceal a deeply damaging withdrawal of the state from its responsibilities to the most vulnerable”. Even Martin Sime, the Chief Executive of the Scottish Council of Voluntary Organisations – who says he believes in self-help – has described the big society as “a toxic brand … a Tory con trick and a cover for cuts”.
The Reith Lectures are not supposed to be political, and in giving them I have sought to avoid making partisan statements (Audience Laughter)… with mixed success <Audience Laughter>But it will be clear to you by now that I am much more sympathetic than these gentlemen to the idea that our society – and indeed most societies – would benefit from more private initiative and less dependence on the state.
If that is a conservative position, then so be it. Once, not least here in Scotland, it was considered the essence of true liberalism.
In my lectures, I have tried to argue that we are living through a profound crisis of the institutions that were the keys to our previous success – not only economic, but also political and cultural – as a civilisation.
I have represented the crisis of public debt - the single biggest problem facing Western politics - as a symptom of the betrayal of future generations: a breach of Edmund Burke’s social contract between the present and the future.
I have suggested that the attempt to use complex regulation to avert future financial crises is based on a profound misunderstanding of the way the market economy works: a misunderstanding into which Walter Bagehot never fell.
I have warned that the rule of law, so crucial to the operation of both democracy and capitalism, is in danger of degenerating into the rule of lawyers: a danger Charles Dickens well knew.
And in this, my final lecture, I have proposed that our once vibrant civil society is in a state of decay, not so much because of technology, but because of the excessive pretensions of the state: a threat that Tocqueville presciently warned Europeans and Americans against.
We humans live in a complex matrix of institutions. There is government. There is the market. There is the law. And then there is civil society. Once – I’m tempted to date it from the time of the Scottish Enlightenment, since I am here at one its brightest spots – once this matrix worked astonishingly well, with each set of institutions complementing and reinforcing the rest. That, I believe, was the key to Western success in the 18th, 19th, and 20th
Centuries. But the institutions in our times are out of joint.
It is our challenge in the years that lie ahead to restore them, returning to the first principles of a truly free society that I have tried to affirm – with a little help from some of the great thinkers of the past – in these Reith Lectures.
It is time, ladies and gentlemen, to clear up the beach. Thank you very much.
SUE LAWLEY: Niall Ferguson, many thanks for setting out your views on our civil society. I looked up the man who founded the Lions Club and did you know his name was Melvin Jones? But he wasn’t (Welsh accent) Melvin Jones. He was …
NIALL FERGUSON: I did know that.
SUE LAWLEY: … he was the Chicago businessman …anyway…
NIALL FERGUSON: (Welsh accent) Probably started out in the valleys down by ‘ere…
SUE LAWLEY: Apparently, his big line was, “You can’t get very far until you start doing something for somebody else.” Well our invited audience here at the Royal Society of Edinburgh can do exactly that for you now and put your views to the test. I see some hands going up, but I heard a lot of scoffing from the back when you were saying that you weren’t making any political statements in these lectures.
NIALL FERGUSON: …well it’s to be expected...
SUE LAWLEY: I’m going to take a question here, gentleman on the end of that row…
JOHN HALDANE: John Haldane, a Fellow of this Society, and Professor of Philosophy at University of St. Andrews, and I also direct the Centre for Ethics, Philosophy and Public Affairs.
Across these lectures you’ve been urging the case against certain kinds of activism - state activism, legal activism and so on - and in this lecture pressing the case for civil society, voluntary associations and the suchlike. What are the implications of this for the common good? The common good understood here as a common identification across the range of society as persons as free and equal citizens? And one might think that this pushing back of the state has the consequence that we lose that sense of a common political identity.
NIALL FERGUSON: Tocqueville saw there as being a fundamental tension between liberty and equality. That’s really the most powerful argument of his other great work - the old regime of the revolution, which is about the French Revolution - and I think that one of the themes of these lectures is an agreement with that. The notion that you could achieve greater social cohesion by increasing the power of the state at the expense of civil society was a great illusion.
The effects of the welfare state as it expanded its scope, as it offered security from the cradle to the grave were in many respects quite unintended. I do not think that Beveridge envisaged the sink estates of Central Scotland, the North of England, the East End of London when devising the welfare state during World War II. And we have to recognise the extent of the failure. We also have to recognise that even in the United States where people imagine there is no welfare state, very similar pathologies have arisen in the wake of the great society and the creation of what is in effect a very expensive and inefficient welfare state.
I think real social cohesion and a real sense of common good, to use your phrase, is much more likely to arise if we get back to the kind of - I admit idealised liberal state that I’m positing here. Certainly, to return to my Welsh beach, one very noticeable consequence of what we did was that people started to walk along the beach again.
So I think it’s a great mistake - perhaps the single greatest mistake of the mid-20th Century - to imagine that a sense of common good, of common purpose, is best instilled by a powerful central state.
SUE LAWLEY: But surely the essence of modern democratic behaviour is looking after the people, and if you erode the provision of welfare and the provision of education then the danger is an awful lot of people fall through the system - the poor, the needy, the vulnerable get left behind?
NIALL FERGUSON: But that’s not the argument that I’m making. I’m arguing for more education, not less.
SUE LAWLEY: (over) That is the argument that your critics would make…
NIALL FERGUSON: (over) But this is, this is …
SUE LAWLEY: (over) … that you are going to leave behind the poor and the needy.
NIALL FERGUSON: But the poor and the needy have been left behind by the institutions of centralised redistribution welfare states. If you think the situation of kids in Dagenham isn’t improved by decent schools like the academies, you clearly haven’t been there; you haven’t been to these schools.
And part of the problem that I find when I’m in these discussions is that there’s a knee-jerk response, very much the case in Europe, that anybody who makes an argument like this must be a heartless Conservative because obviously well meaning left-wing people are doing the best for the poor - doing the best for the poor by trapping them in a dependency culture, doing the best for the poor by trapping them in rubbish schools.
SUE LAWLEY: A lot of people want to take you on, on that. Yes?
JAMES CONROY: James Conroy, Professor of Religious and Philosophical Education at the University of Glasgow. When I look at the serious research on charter schools in the United States, when I look at the work in Sweden and Denmark, when I look at vouchers in the United States, the evidence is really mixed.
Stanford, mathematical research, The Centre for Economic Research in Washington, all say that charter schools actually do worse than regular state schools statistically. Now individuals may do well and I want quite a lot of dissonance in the education system, but simply taking resource and putting it in the hands of the middle classes who are extraordinarily adept at appropriating and using and recuperating every kind of optional resource to the detriment of those who can’t access those resources is I think a mistake.
NIALL FERGUSON: Well you see the thing is that there are lots and lots of studies being churned out and you can cite stats from one side or the other. There’s no substitute, however, for going and seeing how these places operate on the ground. Harlem doesn’t have …
SUE LAWLEY: (over) He does, he says.
NIALL FERGUSON: Harlem does not have a host of managerialist middle class bloodsuckers trying to game the system. They don’t live there. The people who go to the Harlem Success Academy come from an exclusively poor neighbourhood. So this is all for the birds.
And the measurable success of those schools in raising standards way … way above the average, to the point that the kids from Harlem Success compete with the very best schools in Manhattan, you can’t argue with that.
I mean remember… remember these are schools that start from a very, very weak position.
It’s like the academies in Britain that start as failed schools. It would be very remarkable indeed if the magic worked in every case immediately. Many of these experiments, as I’m sure you’d be the first to acknowledge, have not been going on for very long. And finally, remember my argument was not in favour simply of rolling out more charter schools and academies because they are still fundamentally part of a public system, funded publicly, without real freedom. So my argument is not we just need charter schools and more of them. My argument is for biodiversity. And remember my main argument was for more private schools, not for more charter schools.
JAMES CONROY: And I accept entirely the argument biodiversity. However …
NIALL FERGUSON: However…
JAMES CONROY: If you look at the schools in the United States and in other urban settings that make a real difference, they don’t do it because they have access to resource. They do it out of moral purpose because most of them are religious institutions but very specific, very often anti-trickledown economics moral purpose.
NIALL FERGUSON: But I don’t think that contradicts my position at all. On the contrary. If you actually look at where independent schooling was most likely to survive in the world, it was precisely in places where Roman Catholics were in a substantial minority and dreaded their children going to the Protestant controlled state schools.
I don’t really care how independence survives in education - whether it’s through religion or through well meaning secularism. If you’re against that - and presumably some of you are because I’ve had all kinds of characteristically Scottish rude heckling (Audience Laughter) if you’re against that, remember that means you are against improving the quality of schools in poor neighbourhoods.
SUE LAWLEY: Let’s have another rude heckler. There you go. <Audience Laughter>
LARRY FLANAGAN: Well I didn’t actually heckle just then. My name is Larry Flanagan. I was a teacher in the public sector in Scotland for over thirty years and for the last eight weeks I’ve been General Secretary of the EIS, which is Scotland’s largest teaching union.
NIALL FERGUSON: So you agree with me wholeheartedly, no doubt. (Audience Laughter)
SUE LAWLEY: And you didn’t heckle?
LARRY FLANAGAN: And I didn’t heckle. I went to a very good public sector school and I had good manners drilled into me. (Audience Laughter)
NIALL FERGUSON: We’ll see, we’ll see. The guy behind you probably went to Kelvinside. <Audience Laughter>
LARRY FLANAGAN: I enjoyed the opening elements of your speech and the issue of community. You then went on to really dismiss what I think is a key aspect of community in Scottish life and that is the public sector schools. Because every public sector school that I am familiar with is at the heart of the local community - even to the extent that the young people doing good works in terms of raising money for charity, they all revolve around the concept of community. You spoke of literacy and numeracy, which are key important aspects, but your justification was we get more productive workers. From our point of view, we get more fulfilled young people through literacy and numeracy, so we’re working to different agendas, I think.
SUE LAWLEY: Niall Ferguson?
LARRY FLANAGAN: Public sector education in Scotland is well worth defending. <Audience Applause>
NIALL FERGUSON: Yes, well you just look at the transcripts of what I said later and you’ll see that I didn’t say a word against state education. I wasn’t arguing against it and for private education.
My point was that we need both, and we need public education, state education to be better than it is. Please don’t delude yourself that your schools in Scotland are as good as they used to be or are anywhere near as good as the competition in Asia. You know what is really sad to me is when I encounter this kind of Western complacency: “Our schools are great. They’re bastions of the community. There’s nothing wrong with them.”
Look at the international evidence of a real immeasurable decline in the quality of outcomes in terms of literacy and numeracy. Face the fact that there has been rampant grade inflation and that the centralised system has been used to exaggerate improvements in performance and indeed to conceal declines.
Look at the PISA study, and unless you’re trying to make the argument that somehow things are much better in Scotland than they are in England (audience member says off-mic “well they are”) Well you know what? You know what? That was true once, but it isn’t anymore.
SUE LAWLEY: Just broadening it out for a second from education because I think we should. I think an awful lot of people listening to this will wonder if you didn’t actually sell us short in the UK as a whole on the nature of our civil society, on our clubs. There are so many clubs. There is so much community activity, I mean from gardening clubs and bowls clubs to you know …
NIALL FERGUSON: …less than there was…
SUE LAWLEY: …well you say that, but I mean …
NIALL FERGUSON: I …
SUE LAWLEY: … have you counted book clubs, have you counted literacy festivals …
NIALL FERGUSON: …I do say it, Sue.
SUE LAWLEY: … music festivals? And also I mean look at the activity when celebrating the Jubilee, for example, and spontaneous street parties from the top to the bottom of the land. You haven’t got those in your statistics.
NIALL FERGUSON: So perhaps, perhaps I’m not enough of a Royalist to be convinced by a large flotilla in the Thames at a very occasional frequency that there is a lively civil society in England or in Scotland. The …
SUE LAWLEY: Well… and charitable giving.
NIALL FERGUSON: So …
SUE LAWLEY: African famines …
NIALL FERGUSON: No but …
SUE LAWLEY: … raise huge amounts of money. You say we don’t give anymore.
NIALL FERGUSON: But Sue… Sue, please. I’m an historian. What I’m trying to tell you is that if you take the long view, it’s far less than it used to be by any measure. Numbers of clubs, activit… I mean okay so you’re going to tell me that huge numbers of people belong to fishing …
SUE LAWLEY: (over) Not true says the gentleman on … over here.
NIALL FERGUSON: … that huge numbers of people belong to fishing clubs and that the proportion of people in fishing clubs is higher than it was in the 19th Century.
SUE LAWLEY: Go on.
JOHN CURTIS: (starts off mic.) Can I go back to …. John Curtis, Professor of Politics, Strathclyde University. The figures you quoted in your speech about the decline in volunteering from the Home Office Citizens Survey, you were actually quoting changes between 2008-9 and 2009-10. Now nobody can plausibly suggest that the change between those two years is the product of fifty years of a bloated state, and if you look at the wider literature on volunteering it suggests that actually there isn’t any consistent clear evidence of a decline in volunteering in Britain over the last thirty or forty years or so. There is some evidence about decline of charitable giving, but there isn’t necessarily on volunteering.
SUE LAWLEY: I knew someone would back me up on this as an academic … <Audience Laughter>
JOHN CURTIS: But … but that leads me onto another point…
SUE LAWLEY: (over) Well don’t go onto another point. I think he should answer that.
JOHN CURTIS: Well he should answer that. But there’s also a bigger point, which is that all of this research, demonstrates that middle class people are much more likely to engage in volunteering than working class people. And, therefore, the challenge I think for you if you want a more vibrant civil society is how do you ensure that we’re going to ensure that it’s a society where there is equal participation and it isn’t simply a society in which those who give are those who give to Glasgow Academy and Magdalen College, Oxford.
NIALL FERGUSON: So the … (Audience Applause) Remember as I said, that one of the motivations in my involvement with those schools is to increase the number of people who can go to those excellent schools on bursaries, so don’t twist my words. You raised the issue of working class associational life. When was the last time you went past a working man’s club? They’re pretty sad, forlorn and largely empty places these days. Working class associational life on both sides of the Atlantic, you can’t blame Margaret Thatcher, has substantially declined. The organisational … I mean let’s just look at the data. The evidence of associational life and the working class is absolutely clear: it’s collapsed, just in the way that marriage collapsed and church going collapsed. That is more…
JOHN CURTIS: (over) But that is exactly the point …
NIALL FERGUSON: (over) Can I fi… Can I finish?
JOHN CURTIS: The point I’m putting to you …
NIALL FERGUSON: Clearly not.
JOHN CURTIS: … is that because there is that big gap between working class and middle class associational life, the challenge to you, if you want a more vibrant civil society, is to come up with ideas as to how to re-promote working class associational life - which might, by the way, include organisations like trade unions. <Audience Applause>
NIALL FERGUSON: Well…this really is much as I anticipated. <Audience Laughter> We keep coming back to the trade unions as if they’re the answer rather than a serious problem in Western education. So let’s…
JOHN CURTIS: (over/starts off mic.) … they’re a part of associational life …
NIALL FERGUSON: (over) Of course, of course, and I’m not … I’m not suggesting we get rid of them, but I am suggesting that they’re much too powerful, they’re much too powerful in public educa… (Talking in background) Order, order.
SUE LAWLEY: Order order.
NIALL FERGUSON: As they say down South.
SUE LAWLEY: Well go on, answer … (clears throat) Excuse me … Answer the broader point.
NIALL FERGUSON: (over) So I’m very happy to. The real problem here, the reason that you have this atrophying of working class civil society, has a lot to do with the failing schools as well as with the associated social problems of welfare dependency. No?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: No…
NIALL FERGUSON: Could that not possibly be the case? Or are we so ideological in this room that we have to believe that somehow increasing the power of the state and increasing the power of trade unions would magically bring back the good old days?
JOHN CURTIS: But the question I posed to you was not that the state was necessarily the answer. My question to you was what are your ideas…
NIALL FERGUSON: (over) I thought I gave you them.
JOHN CURTIS: … for promoting working class associational life.
NIALL FERGUSON: Well I … my idea is a very simple one. It is to improve the quality of schools that people in working class and unemployed class neighbourhoods can go to.
SUE LAWLEY: I’m going to take the woman with the striped top.
ALISON MURPHY: Alison Murphy. I’m a schoolteacher, local schoolteacher in the area and someone who is involved in civil society, volunteer a lot.
NIALL FERGUSON: Good for you.
ALISON MURPHY: But it strikes me that the problem - and particularly say you talked about the 19th Century clubs, associations - it was great if your face fitted, but if your face didn’t fit you were blackballed from your club. If you were gay in a working class area, you had a problem.
So where is the protection for people who don’t fit their groups, who don’t fit the associations, and where’s the protection where sometimes these associations frankly just get hold of the wrong ideas?
NIALL FERGUSON: Well you can’t stop people having wrong ideas. (Audience Laughter) I’ve tried. (Audience Reaction) God knows, I’m trying tonight.
SUE LAWLEY: They’re saying they are too…
ALISON MURPHY: …but where’s the protection when those ideas start getting a great deal of power?
NIALL FERGUSON: There are two points which are really important here. One has to do with the difference between a homogenous society, ethnic or religiously and a much more heterogeneous, diverse society. One of the interesting things that comes out of recent social surveys in Western Europe is that civil society has declined faster in multi-ethnic communities because they do not appear to integrate well together.
And this is one of the startling things that leaps out when you look at the government data: that there is very, very little integration going on in the most multi-cultural parts of this country and indeed of - or I should say of England - and indeed of large parts of Western Europe.
And that is deeply troubling because the failure to integrate immigrant communities, often after three generations, is a huge source of future trouble for Western Europe. Luckily the United States is much better at that, though it’s far from perfect.
Now the second point that I would make has to do with the ways in which civil society works to improve the situation of the kind of groups that you refer to. It was, after all, one of the great achievements of America’s civil society that the many, many impediments to equal rights of African Americans were incrementally, steadily, swept away by a movement which began at the grassroots and only finally achieved success at the national and state legislature level. The same applies to the rights of homosexual citizens, which were fought for by a tremendously successful and spontaneous voluntary movement, and that seems to me to illustrate quite well the point I’m making.
We moved in the direction of a more tolerant society in the United States, not because a central planner decided it would be good for us, but because gradually, slowly, those Americans who believed in true equality before the law carried the day - campaigned, campaigned, shifted the position of the Democratic Party, shifted the position of the Republican Party. And finally we have a man of partly African origin, half African in the White House. That’s the power of civil society. That’s how it’s supposed to work.
SUE LAWLEY: I’m going to come to a question next. We’re coming towards the end now. Yes?
COLIN KIDD: Colin Kidd, a historian at Queens University Belfast. I’d like to pick up on the theme of biodiversity in society that you raised. Indeed I want to ask how far is the current form of Anglo American capitalism one of the enemies of a flourishing civil society?
SUE LAWLEY: What do you mean by that? Just give me an example of what you’re talking about.
COLIN KIDD: Well if you look over the past few decades, we’ve seen a world where we had friendly societies, building societies and so forth, and then were left with like a one size fits all bank and so forth. Even in the private sector we’ve seen as it were a narrowing and a reducing of options.
NIALL FERGUSON: It sometimes seems when one reads the newspapers that the financial sector has become homogenised and dominated by a few too big to fail institutions.
If you look only at banks, that’s true, but the financial sector is in fact pretty biodiverse. There’s been an astonishing flourishing of different kinds of financial institution in the world since the 1970s. I don’t buy the idea that there’s been a homogenisation of what you called Anglo-American capitalism. I’m not even sure if such a thing exists because the differences between the UK and the US are very striking, as you know of course know Colin, since you’ve worked on both sides of the Atlantic as I have. And I should of course reveal at this point that he’s another Glasgow Academical and it should be said another beneficiary, therefore, of private education. I wonder, Colin, would we have got where we ended up if we’d gone to Ayr Academy in its comprehensive heyday. I somehow doubt it.
COLIN KIDD: I think I’d like to pass on that one.
NIALL FERGSON: Yeah, me too. You know think about it, think about it. Before you… before you start taking sideswipes at private education, before you complacently tell yourself that everything is absolutely great about the state sector in Scotland, the reason that Colin and I had successful academic careers was that our parents got us out of the failing state schools - and they were failing state schools in Ayr in the 1970s, trust me.
You know that’s been the key to my life, and you may find that politically incorrect, but I can tell you that there are a whole bunch of people who have had as much intelligence, probably more than me - not as much as Colin - but there are kids out there who have not had the advantage of a decent education. And because of the failure of the public school central state model, will never have the opportunities that he and I enjoyed to study at great universities, to write books, to develop our minds.
SUE LAWLEY: And finally, Niall, you know from a historical rather than a political perspective now, do you believe - we’ve been talking tonight about the nature of our civil society - do you believe that we are at a crucial turning point? You know if we’re going to save ourselves, we’ve got to do something now?
NIALL FERGUSON: The inspiration behind these lectures was the work that I did for a book called Civilisation. And as I was writing it, I realised that the real story in our time is not just the rise of the rest, the fact that Asian countries and other non-Western countries have transformed themselves economically, are transforming themselves politically. It wasn’t just that, but the real story here was the degeneration of Western institutions - their decline in quality. And the more I thought about that, the more it seemed to me a quite separate phenomenon.
It’s not because China is growing more rapidly that we are managing our affairs less well. The biggest threat to Western civilisation, including … including its version here in Scotland, is complacency. It’s thinking “we’re fine, our schools are great, our legal system’s terrific, our political system’s just fine.”
That’s what these lectures are designed to puncture - to make people realise, regardless of their ideological position, regardless of the politics because this really is not part of that argument, it’s an argument about what is wrong with the institutions themselves. It’s a very appropriate subject to discuss here in Edinburgh. This was one of the beacons of The Enlightenment. This was where we reinvented Western civilisation and massively improved it. The contribution of this city to the rethinking of political, economic and other institutions really was second to none. But we have to ask ourselves if Adam Smith, if Hume could come today and look at Scotland, what would they say? Do you think Adam Smith would be impressed? I don’t think so.
SUE LAWLEY: And there we have to end it. Thank you, Niall Ferguson, BBC Reith Lecturer.
NIALL FERGUSON: Thank you.