View Full Version : Blair's Legacy

John Self
21st Feb 2007, 12:39
Currently running on BBC2 on Tuesday nights is Blair: The Inside Story, a three-part summary of Tony Blair's premiership compiled by Michael Cockerell, who seems to have more inside contacts in Labour than Andrew Rawnsley (whose excellent book Servants of the People gave a thorough reading of Blair's first term).

Last night's first episode covered 1997 to 2001, and as a result the overall impression was fairly favourable, what with there not having been an Iraq war yet... Indeed, having spent too much time recently on the Daily Mail website, where most users posting comments seem to be infected with a pathological inability to accept that Blair has ever done anything that wasn't pure evil, I find myself in response warmer to him now than I have been in the recent past.

If asked to name what Good Things Blair's government has done, off the top of my head I would suggest the following.

Introducing a minimum wage. It's hard to believe now that ten years ago, employers could legally pay people as little as they wanted. The Tories and the CBI bitched about it, but ended up eating their words.
Other aspects of the European Social Chapter (of which the minimum wage is a part), including the Working Time Directive, which enshrines fairly basic rights in law such as minimum number of holidays for employees and the right not to be forced to work more than 48 hours a week.
Granting independence to the Bank of England. Interest rates can now be set without political interference.
Anecdotally, people I know in the health service or teaching professions say the money that has been shovelled into their coffers since 1999/2000 (Labour having pledged to stick to John Major's spending plans for the first two years) has made a real improvement.
More or less equalising the law for homosexuals with regard to marriage, discrimination, age of consent etc.
Coming within a whisker (and it might happen yet on his watch) of solving The Irish Question, which has frustrated Prime Ministers for over a hundred years.The last is what Jack Straw and Chris Patten in the programme last night both regarded as possibly Blair's most significant historical legacy. Of course John Major did the groundwork - and the two IRA ceasefires in 1994 and 1996 which led to talks (and the second of which is still holding) were achieved under Major - but the fact that it's quite likely that a full power-sharing executive will be established in Northern Ireland this year, with all colours of the political spectrum represented, is an undeniable achievement for Blair's own doggedness on the subject.

If you want a more partisan list, here are what Labour claims to be its 50 greatest achievements since 1997:

1. Longest period of sustained low inflation since the 60s
2. Low mortgage rates
3. Introduced the National Minimum Wage and raised it to £5.35
4. Record police numbers in England, Scotland and Wales
5. Cut overall crime by 35 per cent
6. Record levels of literacy and numeracy in schools
7. Best-ever primary school results
8. Funding for every pupil in England to double by 2008
9. Employment is at its highest level ever
10. Written off up to 100 per cent of debt owed by poorest countries
11. 85,000 more nurses
12. 32,000 more doctors
13. Brought back matrons to hospital wards
14. Devolved power to the Scottish Parliament
15. Devolved power to Welsh Assembly
16. Dads now get paternity leave of 2 weeks for the first time
17. NHS Direct offering free convenient patient advice
18. Gift aid was worth £625 million to charities last year
19. Restored city-wide government to London
20. Record number of students in higher education
21. Child benefit up 25 per cent since 1997
22. Created Sure Start to help children from low income households
23. Introduced the Disability Rights Commission
24. £200 winter fuel payment to pensioners & extra £100 for over-80s
25. On course to exceed the Kyoto target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2010
26. Negotiated the historic Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland
27. Over 30,000 more teachers in England schools
28. All workers now have a right to 4 weeks’ paid holiday
29. A million pensioners lifted out of relative poverty
30. 800,000 children lifted out of relative poverty
31. Introduced child tax credit giving more money to parents
32. Scrapped Section 28 and introduced Civil Partnerships
33. Brought over 1 million social homes up to standard
34. Free school milk for five, six and seven-year-olds in Wales
35. Banned fox hunting
36. Cleanest rivers, beaches, drinking water and air since the industrial revolution
37. Free TV licences for over-75s
38. Banned fur farming and the testing of cosmetics on animals
39. Waiting times for operations halved
40. Free local bus travel for over-60s
41. New Deal - helped over a million people into work
42. Over 1.5 million child trust funds have been started
43. Free eye test for over 60s
44. Five, six and seven year olds in class sizes of 30 or less
45. Free entry to national museums and galleries
46. Overseas aid budget more than doubled
47. Cancer death rates down by 12 per cent, saving 43,000 lives
48. Cut long-term youth unemployment by 75 per cent
49. Free nursery places for three and four-year-olds in England, Scotland and Wales
50. Free fruit for all four to six-year-olds at school

And we haven't even touched on the great achievements in the Millennium Dome, Iraq or the pensions crisis...

So what are your views on Blair's legacy? How will he be remembered, if at all, and do the scales tip for or against him in the end?

21st Feb 2007, 13:36
While recognising that the current government have achieved some laudable aims, and despite having loathed the Tory governments that preceded Blair's rise to power pre 1997, I still feel no warmth for Blair. I feel he is disingenuous and can ooze charm on demand. Similarly, he is charmed himself by money and fame to an extent that repulses me: his adulation of fame bypasses his judgement centre in his brain, and that goes against all he says about being a 'straight sort of guy'. He is guileful and a chameleon and portrays himself according to whom he's with - he can be best buddies with Clinton AND with Bush. He can sup pints oop North AND roll Chardonay around his mouth in London. Nothing wrong with that per se, but why does he have to drop his aitches and revert to Mockney with the former?

Although I recognise that Old Labour would never have won the general election in 1997 and see that the various behemoths in their cupboard would have stifled economy and made us susceptible to rule by the trade unions, they seemed more genuine. Of course that's just an impression, and there are many Old Labour types who were just as cynical and manipulative as Blair, Mandelson, Alastair Campbell etc. And Old Labour were hugely inefficient, a dinasour of machinery slowly grinding on. Furthermore, it might be foolish to not vote for a government that had many policies I agreed with (like New Labour) simply because of an intense organic distrust and dislike of the PM, but ever since 1997, I have voted Lib Dem if at all and that's the way it will stay.

The trouble with all the great things that Labour boast about having achieved is that so many of them come with provisos attached. The massive investment in the NHS SOUNDS wonderful, but both as a working doctor and as a regular patient, I (and all my colleagues) can't SEE much difference. Maybe memories are short - I do remember the state of the NHS being dire under the Tories, and perhaps the inevitable escalating costs of new technology have increased the costs of treating each disease so exponentially that although it still seems to us as doctors and patients that we are waiting just as long to see a specialist, that may be because the millions invested have been gobbled up by the costs. For instance, thirty years ago, if a person had a heart attack, you stuck them in a hospital bed and gave them morphine - the cost of the morphine being pennies. Twenty years ago, as now,they received intra venous clot busters to clear the blocked coronary artery - cost being hundreds of pounds. And in the future, we will have to do what the American system has been doing for decades (in fact we are almost immoral not to do it now, considering it produces far better survival rates) and give every heart attack patient an immediate angiogram, moving to do an immediate cardiac bypass if required - costing thousands per patient. That's what my uncle in the US had 10 yrs ago, and if he had been in this country, he would never have had his immediate quadruple bypass and would undoubtably have died waiting for it.

But even given the massive increase in the cost of treating each patient, Labour HAS managed to sqaunder much of the money. The target culture has been written about at length but it still continues. Of course, the Tories originated that, so for all their baying in the Commons, they don't have a better record, having encouraged hospitals to hire 'hello nurses' to greet patients within a half hour so that they would tick the box saying 'seen within x minutes'. But still - New labour could have listened to the professions and cut the red tape. We still have more managers than beds in the NHS in England, and that's not acceptable. And we still have waiting lists that few other westernised countries have. I am extremely grateful for my care, and thank f*** for the NHS otherwise I would have had to sell my flat (as I would have had to in the US) but I'm STILL waiting 4.5 months for each referral. An example - I was referred to the respiratory professor in early-mid October. The appointment is tomorrow. Yet there are hundreds of thousands of people sitting in offices filling in forms or striding officiously about with clipboards. And Labour has not been honest about its achievements in the NHS. The figure it quotes for numbers of nurses , doctors,etc recruited since 1997 includes those who have ben hired to replace retiring professionals. Everything is muddied. And once you realise you can't trust one piece of hype - well, you lose faith in all of them.

But the discussion JS invited is more about Blair than about the potential of a Labour government to do impressive things for the country. And I'm afraid that for me, Blair's half truths, his messianic belief in his own god-like status, his portentousness ('this is not a time for soundbites... but I feel the hand of history on my shoulders'), his sycophancy towards the rich and famous, his (and his wife's) freeloading, his inability to admit he was wrong about Iraq, his double standards (eg re schools, re the MMR vaccine that Leo Blair did not have while the rest of the population was told they would be stupid to listen to the (as it happens false) scare stories about it) and the double standards of many in his government, his arrogance, his ability to act, his insincerity, his reliance on spin and hype, all push my scales way down against him. No, it'll be Ming Campbell and the Lib Dems for me at the next election,even though I disagree with some of their policies (votes for prisoners? Do me a favour. Free care for the elderly? Nice idea but there just aint enough money in the coffers.) At least I TRUST Campbell, like I trusted Charlie Kennedy before him. As for Blair, he should have left the Dome as his legacy - hollow, pompous, and ultimately useless.

21st Feb 2007, 13:44
Blairs legacy?

Well, after doing a lot to change the Labour party he seems to have had a knock-on affect on the Conservative party - is David Cameron Tony Blair's real legacy? Hur hur hur...

Nah, I'm afraid his legacy will be defined by Iraq for most people and PFI projects for me. Grrrrr...

21st Feb 2007, 13:47

Sorry...being dim...elucidate Db.

John Self
21st Feb 2007, 13:55
Private Finance Initiatives. Which I think means (something like) getting private companies to pay to build public service buildings such as hospitals and then the government renting the building back off the private company. It saves money in the short term but probably costs more in the long run. I may be wrong however on any or all of these details.

Leyla, hope you feel better after that rant! Where did you get that Leo Blair hadn't had MMR? I thought that the official response was No Comment but a fairly strong hint (http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qn4158/is_20020202/ai_n12593402)that he had had it in February 2002.

21st Feb 2007, 15:50
Private Finance Initiatives. Which I think means (something like) getting private companies to pay to build public service buildings such as hospitals and then the government renting the building back off the private company. It saves money in the short term but probably costs more in the long run. I may be wrong however on any or all of these details.

Nah, you're right.

The reason I hate them so much is because corporations are interested in making money. (And good on em - so they should be) It used to be that governments had higher ideals (maybe? Probably not the case...) but now our lives are reduced to deadlines and profitability. PFI projects can be good, just like corporations can be good. Most often I have a hard time believing it, though, and when it comes to issues like this (http://education.guardian.co.uk/schools/story/0,,664608,00.html) from 2002 I get increasingly worried.

They're not all bad as far as everyone's agendas are concerned (I mean heck - at least there now are some new schools) but I particularly hate the things.

21st Feb 2007, 16:49
Private Finance Initiatives. Which I think means (something like) getting private companies to pay to build public service buildings such as hospitals and then the government renting the building back off the private company. It saves money in the short term but probably costs more in the long run. I may be wrong however on any or all of these details.

Leyla, hope you feel better after that rant! Where did you get that Leo Blair hadn't had MMR? I thought that the official response was No Comment but a fairly strong hint (http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qn4158/is_20020202/ai_n12593402)that he had had it in February 2002.

:oops: Yes, I was rantin, wsn't I? Sorry. I thought I might have to use scarce NHS resources for my soaring blood pressure and probable stroke!

Re MMR, I read somewhere (probably a columnist in The Sunday Times or the Saturday edition of The Times as they're the only papers I read) that Leo had had single shots instead of the combined MMR - hence Blair's adamant refusal to shed light on the matter. I haven't looked up your link yet, but I'll have a peep soon. I just KNOW that if Leo had had the triple vaccine, Blair would have assurred us of that fact. Remember, he isn't against using details of his personal life when it suits him - eg that cringeable interview with The Sun where I believe he and Cherie even tolerated a question about their sex life (puhlease - I can feel lunch returning), or the numerous Xmas cards with the family gathered in a huddle of grinning rictuses (ricti?).

Re PFI, the hospitals built as a result of PFI are largely disastrous. The new Edinburgh Royal Infirmary cost millions and millions and has fewer beds than the old one. Since one of the main points of a new hospital is to treat more patients, this defeats the purpose rather. I share Daveybot's dislike of them. They do cost far, far far more in the long-term - of course they do, because businesses wouldn't build them out of the goodness of their hearts. A crude analogy is like borrowing several hundred million pounds from businesses to run the NHS - of course all the money has to be paid back in the end, plus extortionate amounts of interest. Ludicrous - how can such short-termism be justified? The ageing demographics of society suggest that in the future, demands on health will be even greater than they are now, with even less money to run it (older demographic hence fewer tax payers and more old ill people). So why are we storing all this debt up for them? Simply so that elections can be won today with shiny new hospitals built on borrowed money. Oh no, ranting again....

21st Feb 2007, 16:55
:oops: Yes, I was rantin, wsn't I? Sorry...

Don't apologise for ranting, it's good to see someone feed off their feelings.

21st Feb 2007, 18:08
I should have added in my PFI hatred a couple of exceptions, of course. Namely this (http://www.evelinaappeal.org/hospital/index.html) little beauty - fine architecture, under budget, within deadline, and funded through PFI. Wonders never cease.

Edited to add:

My mistake: It wasn't funded throuigh PFI after all. It was funded largely through a charitable Trust. That explains much - I wondered what accounted for the inconsistency. Still - goes to show that PFI isn't the only route through which an efficient building programme can be acheived. I wonder what will happen to the design (http://www.richardmurphyarchitects.com/projects/433/) submitted as a PFI competition bid by the practice where I work...

22nd Feb 2007, 12:31
:oops: Yes, I was rantin, wsn't I?

Oops, I was obviously rapping those keys like a demented woodpecker... blush, my spelling isn't usually so bad.

22nd Feb 2007, 14:39
Curiously labour don't list the devolution of powers to the The Scottish Parliament (and Welsh Assembly) which, leaving aside the Holy Horror that is the Scottish parliament building, has I think turned out to be a good thing (I also suspect, that devolution had some part in helping to set the scene which enabled the NI peace process to get as far as it has.)

Edit: yes it does. I managed to miss it. though their list is a bit weird. They claim

34. Free school milk for five, six and seven-year-olds in Wales

and also mention

43. Free eye test for over 60s

Eye tests have been universally free in Scotland for nearly a year now. Why trumpet free milk for kids in Wales and not Free Eye tests for all in Scotland?

John Self
22nd Feb 2007, 15:31
Because that was the Scottish Parliament's doing, presumably? (Like banning smoking in public places in Scotland, and free care for the elderly, which I bet they'd also have boasted about if they could.)

They didn't mention the ban on tobacco advertising either.

22nd Feb 2007, 15:39
I suspect is because they would have to admit the Lib Dems (with whom Labour share power in coalition) have helped / driven through many of these reforms. The welsh Assembly is a Labour held fiefdom.

The smoking ban is great - and I'm a smoker.

22nd Feb 2007, 15:43
...the Holy Horror that is the Scottish parliament building...

Just registering a voice of dissent here, nothing more. :lol:

And yeah, being back in Edinburgh this ladt summer was a real eye-opener. Literally - I could open my eyes in pubs!

23rd Feb 2007, 2:06
JM, I think another reason Labour are loathe to parade benefits brought about in Scotland but not England is because they don't want to invite shrieking from people south of the border who think the Barnett Formula is too generous to Scotland. We get more per head of spending in the NHS overall up here and I hope noone brings that up again for the same reason.

John from Paris
20th Jun 2007, 19:31
Here (http://www.guardian.co.uk/cartoons/stevebell/0,,2107099,00.html)'s a wonderful new Steve Bell cartoon.

20th Jun 2007, 20:37
Excellent. And now, whenever I see two golf balls and two extra-long nail brushes bristle to bristle, I shall think of Cherie.

22nd Dec 2007, 13:18
Breaking News, screams the BBC (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7157409.stm). Tony Blair converts to Catholicism.

22nd Dec 2007, 17:17
Not being at all into religion, I maybe don't quite grasp the significance, but why is this news?

25th Dec 2007, 2:27
Constitutionally I think it might have been a bit of a bugger because if he had done this as PM - he would have been in the position of owing allegiance to the Queen, as head of state, while also acknowledging the divine rightness of The Pope (who also happens - I think I'm right in saying - to be head of state of a foreign country). In the unlikely event of us ever having gone to war with The Vatican, Blair's position would have been slightly untenable. Other than that I don't think it means a sodding thing, apart from the fact that he and Anne Widdicombe have even more in common than most people thought.

8th Mar 2008, 22:37
I was born on May 11th 1979, which I believe was the very day that Thatcher came to power. I hit 18 on May 11th 1997 which I think was the day that Blair came to power.

I grew up in a "defiantly" working class family, and when Kinnock somehow failed to knock Thatcher out, the mood was sombre to say the least.

When Blair came in, I really DID wake up the next morning thinking that things would've changed! But I still had to walk out of the same old dreary council estate to the same old dreary job, and have been doing so ever since. The best thing that Blair did for us, in my opinion, was to stabilise the economy. "Boom-and-bust" now seems like a thing of the past, thank god. But I do, however, feel some kind of anger towards Blair because nothing has changed for the "working man". The poor seem to be getting poorer, and the rich even richer. In these days of "downsizing", the bosses seem to be giving theirselves bigger and bigger bonuses every year, whilst us menial workers don't get any kind of a pay rise...even though the cost of nearly EVERYTHING goes up year after year.

"New Labour", it seems to me, were SCARED of the word "socialism", and Blair has to carry the can for that. Left-wing politics are virtually extinct in this country - the Lib-Dems are as close as you can get...and who'd trust the runnning of the country to them?!

I think we have reached a new (and inevitable) point in the progression of politics and society...whereby it doesn't matter who you vote for at all. Nothing will get better for the poor; and the two main parties will just continue to squabble over the centre-ground, with neither having ANY geniune policy other than to have power FOR THE SAKE of having power.

Democracy has become an irrelevance.

I was born the day that Thatcher came to power, and I hit eighteen the day that Blair came to power...and nothing changed.

I Won't Get Fooled Again.

9th Mar 2008, 1:01
It was May 1st when Blair won the election.

9th Mar 2008, 1:26
It was May 1st when Blair won the election.

I stand corrected!!!

9th Mar 2008, 12:21
Well, as for the financial stability that New Lab are so proud of, some would say that the Conservatives put that in place before 1997, Labour inherited it, wisely, at first, maintaining the same policies, and that they have now (as they do every time they come to power) overdone it on public spending, entered a couple of expensive and unnecessary wars (more of a Tory habit, that, usually) and we're well on the way to a Bust moment again. Luckily, the Tories (though they don't deserve it - I carry no banners for the crowd currently in charge of The Right) will get into office next election. They are less inclined to waste public money, and they can set to work pulling New Lab's, and therefore the country's, chestnuts out of the fire. History has repeated itself three times since 1945, and I remember quite a lot of it, name-calling and surging from extreme to extreme, mostly.

9th Mar 2008, 12:47
There speaks a clear-sighted and experienced pragmatist. Totally agree with you, gil.

11th Mar 2008, 0:09
In terms of the Gini coefficent and the 90:10 ratio of poor to rich, the Blair goverment failed, and how. The biggest disappointment of my adult life. Don't get me started on the guys I have met, riched up by the PFI ! [to the vomitorium once more .... ]

11th Mar 2008, 10:26
The more I hear about these PFI projects, the angrier I get.

John Self
11th Mar 2008, 10:40
Well, I've never been fully confident that I know exactly what these are, so let me (for my own benefit and possibly others) try to explain what my understanding of them is.

1. Country needs new schools, hospitals etc.

2. But these are very expensive and to build them would require increased taxes.

3. Instead get private companies to build them and pay for (most of?) the building costs.

4. Then the govt can pay the private companies a 'rent' for the building over the next x years (10? 50?) which will make them a tidy profit on the deal.

5. Problem is that (a) it costs more in the long run this way, and (b) future governments and generations are going to be saddled with these huge 'rent' payments along with all their own public expenditure, which will cause problems/tax rises in the future.

Am I close? And are these the same as PPP (Public Private Partnership) agreements?

EDIT: In Ireland they have done this for roads, except neatly it's not the government that pays the money back, it's the public directly. The Belfast to Dublin journey was always slowed by going through the town of Drogheda. It needed a bypass but because it was in a valley, the cost of building a bridge was too high. So a private company did it and erected a toll plaza at the bridge. Now if you want to go straight to Dublin, you pay about €2 each way. You can still go through Drogheda of course but it's actually quite hard to find your way now because the signs don't make it obvious - even though Drogheda would be much easier to get through now.

The idea is that this toll will expire in, say, 10 years. Of course by then the traffic on the road will have increased so much that they'll want to extend it ... and the private company will come in again, do the work, and extend their hold on the road for another decade.

11th Mar 2008, 12:12
Yes, JS, that's pretty much it. Under the PFI, the govt subcontracts to the Private Sector. PPPs are where both work together.

But lest anyone should detect a whiff of the benign or of corporate social responsibility, the private companies actively seek out these opportunities. And the returns for the private companies, say on MOD housing, have been enormous, £100m's, even in the early years of these long contracts. The capitalist commentator will say QED: the inherent inefficiency (and lack of expertise) of the public sector has been shown up in the face of private sector capability. What has also been shown up is the catastrophic undervaluation by the Treasury when negotiating the deal.

Companies exist for one purpose: to maximise shareholder wealth. Period. They are not moral entities. Peter Drucker, the management guru of gurus said, "If you find an executive who wants to take on social responsibilities, fire him. Fast."

John Self
11th Mar 2008, 12:47
Companies exist for one purpose: to maximise shareholder wealth.

This probably just shows how temperamentally unsuited I would be to being a businessman, but I've always wondered why companies want to float on the stock exchange. It just means that your whole business model will change from (say) publishing beautifully produced books or making organic chocolate - or whatever area it is you were sufficiently interested in in the first place to start a business - to maximising profits by publishing books and making chocolate. And the easiest way to maximise profits is to cut costs and head downhill for the lowest common denominator.

ITV has a new head of programming - BBC1's old head of programming - after the last one, Simon Shaps, left last week when he failed to reverse the decline in ITV's fortunes. But ITV is doomed. Its aim is to maximise advertising revenue for its shareholders. Viewers are secondary. It can't innovate because that doesn't bring in big audiences, and the problem with pursuing its normal downmarket route is that digital television as well as other new media mean audiences are fragmenting, and there is no longer a big audience to be had for one particular brand of total crap, when there are several hundred channels of total crap competing for the viewers.

11th Mar 2008, 12:57
Whether you are a private company or a public company does not necesaarily make a difference, although the influence of the owner can be greater in the former.

The main reasons for going public are to obtain access to much greater sources of capital (say for growth, product development, etc) and for the owners/directors of the private company to cash in their chips and make a fortune. Of course within this crude overview there could be a multitude of sub-motivations going on.

13th Mar 2008, 17:52
Funny (and in a way, nicely refreshing) to discover Jeanette Winterson is NOT a Labour luvvie. Here in last Saturday's Times (http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/books/article3503462.ece), she gives vent to a nice little rant. I agree with her in almost every point. The less you expect and ask of kids (and adults, too, for that matter), the less you will get from them. Tell a child that something is too difficult and they'll believe you. Give them something that's good and then show them how to tackle it to get the most out of it, and they'll usually rise to the occasion and exceed your expectations. As mentioned elsewhere, having had a taster of what passes for education today, it mostly seems geared to providing for the lowest common denominator. But enough of my rant - it's Jeanette's we're concerned with here. So here it is for y'all before it disappears off the net:

Jeanette Winterson on the sorry state of English literature within modern education

OSCAR WILDE ONCE REMARKED THAT the Church of England is the only church where the sceptic stands at the altar.

Perhaps it is a particular English disease to believe in nothing. It might be why we are one of the unhappiest nations on earth.

It need not be God who fires your heart and shapes your values, but it had better be something, because we seem, as a species, and as individuals, to fare better when there is something other than our own narrow interests to propel us. The last war, for all its horrors, bound people together in a common cause, and the scientist James Lovelock has said that the inevitable climate catastrophe awaiting us will, at least, force us all out of pettiness and towards purpose.

I am not a Labour supporter, because I have never known what the new incarnation of that party really believes in, but what I am sure it doesn't believe in is the importance of art and culture.

In an earlier column I wrote with bafflement and dismay at Lord Dearing's recommendation that foreign language teaching in schools must dispense with the oral examination because it is “too stressful”. This week we hear that literature is not to be taught at A level, either. Camus and Dante, Pushkin and Proust are just too difficult. Instead, the syllabus will focus on lifestyle, and students can write an essay of around 250 words on some literary topic of their choosing.

Stop right here. Yes, right here. An essay in 250 words? Let's hope the reporter missed out the final nought.

We are breeding monoglot idiots. I am sorry to be rude to Lord Dearing and his well-paid lowbrow egalitarian worshippers of the stupidest and laziest among us, but the effect of Labour's ignorant policies can only be the survival of the thickest.

There is no point in ordering the best universities to take state school candidates if those candidates will not be able to manage the courses. You cannot study a foreign language at degree level if you cannot read the literature of that language in the original.

Unsurprisingly, the fee-paying schools aren't going to bother with new Labour's toytown qualifications (yippee, all the kids will get grade A). The smart schools will teach as they always have done.

So if you have about £12,000 a year to spare, your children will learn expensively what used to be taught free.

At the heart of this nonsense is lack of belief. Literature, especially literature by foreigners, has the same status in the eyes of Labour reformers as train spotting. It is a harmless, unnecessary, slightly eccentric way to pass the time and has no relevance to the busy, self-important world of employment and money-making.

The idea that young people would find worth and reason and excitement and discovery in literature of any kind is beyond the grasp of Labourites. To me, as a child from a working-class household without books, Labour has become the party of betrayal.

I am here because of books. One of the reasons I am here is because I read Camus's The Myth of Sisyphus, aged 16, at the second of being chucked out of the house. Camus is perfect for young people because he is all ardour and belief - his quest to believe in nothing lands him back at believing in each person's spirited defiance against the numbing operations of a machine-world.

Why is Labour intent on turning education into a machine-world instead of a journey into life?

Already, in English literature, kids are not required to read the whole of a text. They are led to believe by their weary and worn-out teachers that a book is not worth reading all the way through. You can spend hours on Facebook, but not Middlemarch?

Hermann Hesse, who is also off the syllabus, wrote a strange and prophetic book, The Glass Bead Game, about a future world where society has become utterly divided into those who are initiated into the mysteries of the game, and the masses who are not.

Reading is a cheap and democratic way of revealing the human mind to itself - all you need is someone to teach you to read and, after that, some books. Why are we turning literature into a new mystery? Why are we saying to millions of kids: “This is not for you?” I'll tell you why, because the sceptics at the altar don't believe a word of this. Their message is clear - literature is of no value to the masses.

John Self
13th Mar 2008, 18:00
What a rallying cry! Terrific!

13th Mar 2008, 18:07
Jeanette Winterson, I think, would be an Old Labour Luvvie. I agree with every word she says, though. Good God, if you miss out oral, the only way you can learn how real people speak the lingo is through books, preferably good ones.

When I were a lad, you had to read the whole of several books to get SLC Higher English (sort of between O and A level), and they were toughies, like Sir Walter Scott, though George Orwell and Robert Louis Stephenson cropped up, too. And I was actually in the Science stream.

14th Mar 2008, 16:28
What is the point of learning a language if you're not going to have an oral section to the test? If you're in a country and you're trying to communicate with people the easiest way is generally to speak to them. Also as JW said, how can you teach them about the culture without reading the literature? And how are you going to achieve anything in one 1 hour lesson a week, which is apparently what the new curriculum suggests?

The levels of foreign language ability in this country are already amongst the worst in Europe and will only get worse with the government's total disregard for its importance.

14th Mar 2008, 18:27
Please allow me to embody this issue - flimsy, sub-survival (or, as it's known, "GCSE") level French perpetually deteriorating from 18 years back. My Spanish exposure is being picked up with the mental dexterity equivalent of a withdrawing crack addict with his hands cuffed behind his back trying to pluck an incompetent officer's fallen keys off the floor - which he has partially kicked under a very laboured metaphor.

15th Mar 2008, 15:46
Surely foreign language courses should be a matter of choice? I know kids who went to school every day and can't read or write. Most schoolkids can't read.

15th Mar 2008, 16:42
Bit of a sweeping generalisation there DP. Ok, some schoolchildren can't read, not most. As a school librarian, I see and cater for all reading abilities.

16th Mar 2008, 16:49
Still, English should be made the priority, and foreign languages should be entirely optional.

16th Mar 2008, 18:19
I disagree. Educating youngsters effectively in our own language is important, but I'd say reducing emphasis on foreign language education is culturally blinkered - it's the old "speak ENG-lish" syndrome, expecting Them to bring the mountain to Us.

It's fairly well accepted (assuming our understanding of the brain hasn't radically altered in this regard since I read about it) that children pick up languages far better than adults; babies born to multilingual parents usually learn both parents' tongues simultaneously, as distinct languages, if they are exposed to them. But from around the early teens the brain's innate capacity for this kind of pattern learning becomes overwritten, making it much less natural a skill to develop from then on. If anything, the mistake is in not pushing language study earlier. If we had the kiddies learning Spanish and, let's say, Japanese or Mandarin from the age of eight upwards, British children would be able to usefully converse with a mighty majority of the world's people. If you want to make Britain Great again, that would be a big step.

17th Mar 2008, 14:00
You're right there - children born to bilingual parents do learn both languages simultaniously and children do learn languages much easier. If they are going to teach foriegn languages they should teach them earlier rather than later - when children and teenagers need to learn about the world more than things like other languages.

19th Mar 2008, 9:39
If I read the original article correctly, it's not about de-emphasising the study of other languages, it's removing the oral exam from GCSE and literature from A level.

I have to say that, having done an A level in Spanish (many moons ago!) I got a lot out of the literature section of the course. Yes, I might have read those authors in translation (and still do with Gabriel Garcia Marqeuez) as part of the course but I don't think it's the same as reading in the original language. It improved my reading skills in Spanish, gave me a better grasp of idiom and gave me the opportunity to immerse myself in Spain (if that doesn't sound too odd). It would be a pity to lose it.

In terms of the argument about learning other languages at school and whether it should be compulsory, I found that learning another language helped me to understand the structure of the English language better, especially as we didn't seem to learn much English grammar - the only reason I know that the correct English is "If I were" rather than "if I was" is becuase I learned it in French and Spanish grammar.

I agree that it makes sense to teach another language as early as possible as well - we learned French at primary school, simply because the headmaster liked the language so spent a bit of time each week with us to teach us to speak and sing a little.

19th Mar 2008, 10:29
I agree there, Hek. I got so much out of studying French literature: I never actually visited France until I was 25/6 but reading dense amounts of the language really did help me become a better speaker of it. Of course you had to do an oral exam for A level but knowing the grammar and workings of the language backwards meant you could cope with most things you needed to say. Nowadays they don't learn the verbs by rote so if you ask how to say "we did something" as opposed to "I did something", GCSE students wouldn't have the method by which to work out how to say it.

And studying both French and Latin helped make perfect sense of English. They should study a language from 6 or 7, and should co-ordinate the handover to secondary school so the children don't end up studying the same things they learned as 8, 9 and 10 yr olds over and over again there in Year 7.

19th Mar 2008, 20:45
My enduring memory from my French O Level oral exam was the role play in which my little piece of paper told me to go into the greengrocer and buy half a kilo of mushrooms. Could I remember the French word for mushrooms? Could I 'eckers like!

"Bonjour madame. Je voudrais un demi-kilo de... ces legumes ca *pointing at thin air* sil vous plait."

"Des champignons?"

"Oui!!! Des champignons!!!"

And in my A level Spanish oral I was asked to define what is "un perro caliente" (a hot dog).

A sausage in between two bits of bread (un chorizo entre dos trozos de pan) was the best I could do.