Blair must make us sing together the Clinton hymn

The American president's plea to take politics out of education offers Labour's leader a way to reform Britain's public services
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The Independent Online
If you cannot make governments bigger, how do you make them better?

The phrase "not bigger government, better government" comes from Tony Blair, but its genesis is Bill Clinton's "not bigger government, but more effective government". This is surely the core issue for all governments of western democracies in the first 25 years of the next century: how can governments do more with less?

Rhetoric is just rhetoric, but it is also a key currency of politics. Given Mr Blair's predilection for borrowing Mr Clinton's choicest soundbites, what the American president says now should give a clue to what the British prime minister may well be saying in a few months' time. So the President's State of the Union message on Wednesday should be read with particular attention over here. Remember a year ago, before re-election, Mr Clinton declared that the era of big government was over - just as Messrs Blair and Brown have declared in the past few days that they will not increase public spending for two years, or increase personal tax rates during the life of the next parliament. Now, safely in power, how has Mr Clinton shifted his ground?

There was a fascinating change of emphasis, showing how a clever politician can still seek to nudge a country towards particular goals without committing government to spending money it doesn't have. There were few big themes here; much more a series of small, politically popular gestures, which cumulatively might add up to something significant.

But the stress was astonishingly familiar. There were three items of "unfinished business". One was the need for a balanced budget. Well, in the Commons yesterday, there was Mr Blair going on about how the Tories had doubled the national debt. A second was the need to reform US campaign funding - again a familiar Labour theme. And the third was the need to get increased employment of people previously on welfare support. Mr Clinton's "turn those welfare checks into private sector paychecks" is exactly what Messrs Blair and Brown have also been calling for.

But perhaps the closest parallel is in education. Three pages of the nine-page speech were devoted to improving American educational standards - the rest being largely concerned with "our national community" and foreign affairs, and so not really relevant in UK terms.

So what was on Mr Clinton's hymn-sheet, for Mr Blair to sing? Plans always seem to have to have 10 points, and this was his 10-point plan for education.

1. "A national crusade for educational standards", with national standards - and tests - in reading and maths.

2. Expansion of the national certification of excellence in teaching, rewarding the best, and quickly and fairly removing "those few who don't measure up".

3. Remedial reading for the 40 per cent of eight-year-olds who can't read properly.

4. Pressure on parents to take an active role teaching children before they start school, and thereafter.

5. Choice. "Every state should give parents the power to choose the right public school for their children", with the expansion of the system of charter schools, publicly financed schools which meet standards of excellence and which are closed down if they drop below the standard.

6. Character education. "We must teach our children to be good citizens. [Applause.] And we must continue to promote order and discipline, supporting communities that introduce school uniforms, impose curfews, enforce truancy laws, remove disruptive students from the classroom ..."

7. More money for school buildings.

8. A push to increase the proportion of high-school students getting at least two years of higher education, including a plan to save money, free of income tax, for parents to pay for university education.

9. Lifetime learning - giving people better access to retraining.

10. Get every school and library linked to the Internet by the year 2000. (Incidentally, for people who are interested in such matters, this was the first State of the Nation that went out live on the Internet, so anyone in the world with an Internet link and RealAudio software could listen to it live.)

Well, that's it. Except that there was one more twist to the statement: Mr Clinton wanted this programme to be bipartisan, "because education is a critical national security issue for our future, and politics must stop at the classroom door".

That is a twist indeed. Look through those points above and some, such as national testing and choice of school, are pretty much straight Tory stuff. Most of the others, such as emphasis on school buildings, adult learning and linking to the Internet, are right there among the Labour priorities. But the thing that's absolutely new is the idea that a commitment to education should not be a party political matter. If Mr Blair is indeed modelling himself on President Clinton, this seems to me to be of seminal importance.

As President Clinton was speaking I happened to be having dinner with some thoughtful backbench Labour MPs. "If education is our big idea," asked one, "how are we going to improve it, if there is no additional money to spend?" The prime thing they were concerned about was the fact that people would expect better public services from Labour, and that they would be unable to deliver them. My suggestion that Labour, with its traditional support for public services, might be more trusted to prioritise between them produced wry disbelief.

I had not spotted it then because I had not seen Mr Clinton's speech, but there is surely a way forward. It involves Labour, once it has won the election, adopting a much less partisan approach to reform of the big areas of public service: in particular pensions and welfare benefits, but also to some extent education and health.

President Clinton has clearly an uncanny knack for catching the mood of the hour. Mr Blair has also shown an instinct for the bipartisan approach, for example acknowledging that many of the Thatcherite reforms of the Eighties were needed. Is bipartisan honesty about the need to set priorities the way to get acceptance for reform of the welfare state, the way to get government that is really better?

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