AS I WAS SAYING
How Sir Claus Moser has helped me make up my mind how to vote
What would your reaction be if told that the top 20 to 30 per cent of Britain's schools were the best in Europe? Of course you would be thrilled to bits. But if your informant, having passed on this excellent piece of news, added that Britain's bottom 20 to 30 per cent of schools were the worst in Europe, how much of the gilt would that take off your gingerbread?
Off mine, not much. I would regret the failure at the bottom end but not to the degree of allowing this to tarnish my rejoic- ing about the success at the top. Getting the top 20 to 30 per cent of the country's education right, more right than anywhere else in Europe, would strike me as an immense achievement. Of course if all our schools were the best in Europe that would be even more of an achievement, but in the real world that would be too much to hope for. Any government aiming so high might only end up with Britain having fewer of the worst schools but fewer also of the best — just a lot more mediocre schools produc- ing neither superb results at the top, nor abysmal ones at the bottom. Would that be any improvement? Not in my book, it wouldn't.
But in Sir Claus Moser's it might. Why do I drag him into the matter? Well, it so happens that it was from an article in the Independent by this archetypal modern mandarin and very model modern Estab- lishment figure, giving all his reasons for voting for Mr Blair, that I learnt that the top 20 to 30 per cent of Britain's schools are indeed the best in Europe. But Sir Claus was not impressed by this, only men- tioning it as a damning contrast to Britain's bottom schools being the worst. Far from the good figure mitigating the bad, for Sir Claus it only made it worse. Look at what a monstrous country we have become under Mr Major. Not only does he give us the worst schools, but unforgivably, adding insult to injury, also the best.
Time and time again during this election campaign, in articles and television talk, I have heard this kind of nonsense from sup- porters of Mr Blair. It has been a discon- certing, depressing experience from which I have gained only one benefit. At least it has helped me to make up my mind to vote Tory. There is, I fear, no serious alterna- tive. The New Labour leadership may live in the real world, as may some of their sup- porters, but far too many of them — above all the articulate ones from whom we have heard most in this election — would only be at home in Utopia.
What they seem to want are two incom- patible and mutually contradictory ends: a society in which the state guarantees every- one maximum protection from the vicissi- tudes of the human condition and absolute freedom to enjoy all its pleasures; a society in which the state guarantees every pupil the right to the very best in education and the right to disrupt classes; a society in which the state guarantees every citizen the best medicine and the right to ruin his health; a society which guarantees every cit- izen the right to a job and the right to turn down badly paid ones; a society which guar- antees every citizen the right to outrage his neighbours by antisocial behaviour and the right to depend on them in times of trou- ble; and so on and so forth forever and ever amen.
It can't be done. Which do we want, a free and open society in which citizens can do whatever they want within the law — i.e. let it all hang out, however shocking — or a more closed and authoritarian society in which citizens feel constrained to conform? Mrs Thatcher's Tory party made that choice: for the first kind of society. New Labour has not. It, or at any rate the bulk of its supporters, want the best of both kinds. But in the modern world you can't have both. The capitalist system has opened up so many new opportunities for people to shape their own lives, created so many new temptations, that the whole world is now their oyster. Horizons have been immensely broadened. That intimate sense of belonging to a particular commu- nity, of fellowship, of mutual responsibility, of, in a word, neighbourliness, has been irrecoverably lost. Where people once belonged inescapably to a village or, at I'm here for tax purposes.' most, a country, capitalism has now made them citizens of the world. Not all citizens welcome these new freedoms; many still yearn for more restricted horizons. But the more active, ambitious citizens most cer- tainly do welcome them, and would not vol- untarily renounce them.
What does this mean? It certainly means the end of the welfare state, or, at any rate, a welfare state based on consent. The bonds of community are no longer strong enough to make the financial burdens acceptable to those who have to bear them. One has only to listen to what some citizens demand out of it — during election cam- paigns there is no end to the list — to realise this. I heard a young unmarried mother demanding a free crèche even for her one-year-old, as well as Sir Claus demanding the best schools in Europe for everyone. A welfare state might conceiv- ably rise to this challenge, but not on a vol- untary basis, only on a basis of compulsion. Is that what Sir Claus wants? Does he hell.
A caveat, however, needs to be made a most important one. In one set of excep- tional circumstances, a sense of belonging just might be restored. Remember how the welfare state came into existence in the first place. It came into existence as a result of a sense of community engendered during those dark wartime days when, half a cen- tury ago, Britain stood alone against a hos- tile Europe. If Britain were to withdraw from the European Union and once again face a hostile Continent alone, enough of a sense of community to make a consensual welfare state practicable might indeed come flooding back. For a brief period dur- ing the Falklands war it did come flooding back. Irony of ironies, therefore, the Tory Europhobes, if they have their way, could become the saviours of the welfare state. But short of a nationalistic, jingoistic shot in the arm, which Mr Blair is most unlikely to supply, it has had its day.
Arguably, New Labour might be the best party to put it out of its death agonies, rather in the same way as General de Gaulle was the man most suited to put French Algeria out of its death agonies. On that treacherous ground it might make sense to vote for New Labour. But not on any other. The Tory vision for Britain is a land fit for aspirers to live in. Not particu- larly attractive, but clear. What is Labour's? A Utopia fit only for the mud- dle-headed.