Robert Skidelsky
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Hipperholme Grammar School Speech Day
Robert Skidelsky
Hipperholme Grammar School | Tuesday, December 08, 1998

Mr Armitage, Headmaster, Ladies and Gentlemen.
It is a great honour to be the guest speaker at this Speech Day and Prize Giving on the occasion of the 350th anniversary of the founding of Hipperholme School.
I have to confess that when I received your Headmaster’s invitation the thought did cross my mind that Halifax was rather a long way from London. But I could not resist the terms in which Mr. Robinson’s invitation was couched, and with his permission, I want to quote one passage from his letter. It refers to the decision to go independent in 1985:
‘Looking back now’ he wrote, ‘it was the best thing that happened to us. We of course sacrificed a certain intake and had to go looking for it. but we gained immeasurably more in freedom and attitude and morale. Calderdale said we would not last a year but the local press reserved judgment and called the Chairman of the Governors either very stupid or very brave. It turned out the latter was correct!’ Courage has always attracted me like a magnet, and here I am.
In the preccincts of Westminster we have been having quite a constitutional drama. I don’t know whether it has been of the slightest interest to anyone outside that square mile in which politicians and journalists trade self-importance; that dank forest of control freaks, spin doctors, and rumour mongers which makes up the contemporary world of politics, where principle means expediency, where truth means falsehood, where courage and courtesy spell political oblivion; where the only thing which matters is a pleasing face and mastery of the sound bite.
At the centre of the drama was our poor House of Lords, an institution which is easy to mock and infinitely hard to replace. It was Lord Salisbury who once remarked that he dreamt he was making a speech in the House of Lords and woke up to find that he was. Its very oddity, quirkiness, and occasional cussedness is as out of place in the modern world as Geoffrey Boycott.
The crime of the hereditary peers was to ask a single pertinent question before signing their death warrant. Are you sure you have something better to put in our place? Could you tell us what it is? Of course they have now run foul of both party leaders, who have started to compete with each other in constitutional vandalism. The House of Lords is to be compulsorily reorganised.
|Despite, or perhaps because of, a history which goes further back even than Hipperholme Grammar School, they do not fit into the streamlined, rationalised, democratic, dumbed down world of Cool Britannia. Equally it might be said of Viscount Cranborne that he was either very stupid or very brave. And the national press is now saying that we will all be sent packing, hereditary peers and life peers alike, in the next year or so.
I am not trying to make a judgment about the comparative merits of the two cases. Personally, I have always been in favour of a reform of the House of Lords. What I am drawing attention to a certain spirit of cussedness, a refusal to be pushed around, which I have always taken to be the hallmark of the British character, and the ultimate guarantee of our liberties. We don’t like to be treated as mere pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, as interchangeable parts of a local authority plan, even if it has a so-called democratic mandate behind it.
We know that bureaucracies everywhere like everything to be standardised, uniform, and flattened. You have the dreadful example of the Ridings School in your own area. Yet we also know that everything valuable springs from the spirit of independence, from the existence of choice and diversity.
Let me make one further observation before I leave the subject of the House of Lords. The greatest offence of the hereditary peers is to be there by accident of birth. May I say to the pupils here tonight, that you too are here by accident of birth –the accident being that you have been born to parents wealthy enough, or, perhaps more accurately, who care enough about education to make large sacrifices to buy you the education they want for you.
I know this will be called unfair. In an ideal world we would have a state system of education which caters effectively for all aptitudes and abilities. Perhaps the old system of grammar, technical schools, and secondary moderns might have evolved into a system we could all readily defend had it not been comprehensivised in the 1960s and 1970s. But it was not given the chance to do so by our political masters. So today independent schools remain the only bastion of freedom in the school system of this country. And no parents should ever feel guilty about upholding freedom, or doing the best that they can for their children.
Today all schools are judged by their place in league tables. Competing in educational League tables has become our great new national sport. I must, as they say, declare an interest, because Warwick University, where I teach economics, is ranked number 5 of all universities, and I hope some of you will consider it.
I have seen the GCSE and A Level results of schools in Calderdale which show the excellent performance of Hipperholme Grammar, and I don’t want to decry that for a moment.
When I was at school at Brighton College I was one of those horrible boys who always won a prize, sometimes several, and felt rather superior for doing so. I sat in the front with the other prize winners, the rest of the school was banished to the rear. This was in the 1950s, but I see that some things don’t change.
Our guest speakers seemed to come from a different world. They consisted mainly of generals, missionaries, and other such representatives of warlike tribes,
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