How much worse can I do?" asked Toby Young, as he came away from a slightly bruising encounter with a group of comprehensive school teachers who'd questioned the universality of the school he plans to set up in west London. For Young – journalist, playwright and serial underachiever ("I've made a career out of being a failure") – the state system's boast that it leaves no child behind is a hollow one. So busy is it inculcating good citizenship and social norms, he argues, that basic education is squeezed out. For his opponents, his plan to open a parent-run school concentrating on high expectations and an old-fashioned curriculum is just a reactionary indulgence, one that will draw down taxpayers' money to fund a middle-class enclave. And given that Young's scheme had already aroused considerable local opposition, his rhetorical question seemed unwise, to say the least. You could do a lot worse his opponents will be tempted to reply, and by the time we find out the damage will already have been done.
When Young began this process the uphill gradient was a good deal steeper than it is now, under the Coalition Government that is actively encouraging independent bodies to enter the education market. Under Labour, applications to open an academy school could only be made through the local council, who had to be persuaded that such a thing was necessary in the first place. As a rival supplier of secondary education, some councils were not over-keen to push the paperwork through. These days you can file by email direct to the Department of Education, though it probably doesn't help the cause of establishing yourself as a fit and responsible person to turn up to your interview on completely the wrong day, as Young managed to contrive. When it comes to drawing up the timetable, perhaps someone else should be in charge.
As someone who can only just manage to get to ordinary parents' evenings, I confess to a certain amount of admiration for Young's tenacity in the teeth of bureaucratic hurdles and local hostility. Those who opposed his scheme – on the grounds that he was a "pirate" and an educational elitist – seemed to have missed the point that they could very simply express their opposition by not sending their children there, though if they follow the boycott option, objections to the school as a middle-class ghetto would perhaps be a little perverse. On the other hand, Young's commitment to Latin as an educational tool, and his grumpy-old-man educational theories (force feed them classics until they like them) seemed to owe more to dogma than any experience at the chalk-face. And curiously there was no mention here of the fact that his own father was a proponent of progressive education and the founder of the Open University, a long paternal shadow that may have had more than a little to do with the intense passion he'd brought to this cause. How much worse can he do? A lot worse, I would have thought, if his own psychobiography is really the issue here, rather than his children's ability to parse a line of Virgil.
I guess it's only a coincidence that Secret Iraq should air the day after Ed Miliband said that it had been wrong for Labour to take the country to war there, but it's a coincidence made more likely by the fact that doubts over that conflict are now beginning to ripen into candour. We're getting to the talking time, when even those at the heart of the decisions feel that they can express themselves more openly and the BBC can broadcast interviews with what President Bush called "turrists" without unleashing an enraged attack on its patriotism. More to the point, they can now actually film such interviews without immediately being taken hostage and forced into becoming unwilling participants in an al-Qa'ida snuff movie (though the film wasn't explicit about exactly how it had secured its interviews with former insurgents).
The voiceover, rather luridly, promised a story "shrouded in deceit and lies... a story of treachery and betrayal". Then again if you can't be lurid about a fiasco on this scale it's hard to know when it would be justified. From the perspective of hindsight – always derided as "easy" but rarely as myopic as its alternatives – Iraq was a chain of avoidable disasters dangling from a delusive success. This account detailed precisely how the coalition forces managed to turn a victory into something barely distinguishable from a defeat, and mordantly interleaved it with the wishful thinking of the time. "When Iraqi people looked into the faces of our servicemen and women they saw strength and kindness and goodwill," said President Bush a preposterous fantasy that doesn't sit well with footage of angry and nervous Marines roaring aggressively at a crowd of Iraqi protesters.
Some of the bad decisions were systematic, such as the policy of de-Baathification (which replaced a functioning civil service with a lawless vacuum), and the dismantling of the Iraqi army (which supplied the insurgency with a huge number of disgruntled recruits, trained in handling explosives). Others involved local reactions, such as the punitive assault on Fallujah after the murder of four Blackwater security contractors, which further cemented the rage of ordinary Iraqis at their occupiers. Secret Iraq reminds you what a shambles the coalition's brief tenancy of Iraq was, and restores to that word its bloody origins in butchery and guttered blood.