Howard Jacobson: Here's why the 'elite' are in charge

Clegg and Cameron have power because there aren’t enough people educationally equipped to seize it from them
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The Independent Online

Here's a little test for you. Who said of Samuel Beckett, "his appeal lies in his directness – the sparse, unembellished prose that can make his meticulous stage directions unexpected"?

No, not Terry Eagleton. Guess again.

I'll put you out of your misery. Nick Clegg.

Let's not get carried away. I wouldn't have given that an A+ had it turned up in an essay at Wolverhampton Polytechnic. He who would avoid cliché must not put "sparse" and "unembellished" together. And "directness" is not a noun that quite winkles out what's distinctive or, as Clegg has it, "disturbing" – another cliché – in Samuel Beckett. Mrs Thatcher had "directness", as did John Prescott, if you remember him. The quality makes neither of them Beckett. But never mind. The wonder of it is, that asked to choose his hero, Clegg chose Beckett.

Whether Cameron will come round to any of Clegg's tastes in the long nights of slinky rapprochement ahead remains to be seen. His own stated preferences have always been strategically populist. As, of course, were Blair's and, latterly, Brown's. In Blair's case I believed them. Blair was superficial to his skin. In Brown's I didn't. We will never know now whether Brown would have fared better had he been allowed to speak in his own native spare, unembellished prose, but it would have been worth a try. The lesson should not be lost on Cameron. The British might despise elitism but they quickly see through cultural sycophancy.

Though I don't doubt the sincerity of his passion for Beckett, Clegg is not what you would call an intellectual. No more than is – or maybe just a little bit more than is – Cameron. We wouldn't want it otherwise. In this country the intellectual life and the political life are inimical. We don't do philosopher or poet leaders. That keeps us tepid but it also keeps us safe. Clegg admits himself "unsettled" by Beckett's idea that "life is just a series of motions devoid of meaning". A little flirtation with emptiness in the front row of the orchestra stalls is one thing, but we would rather our politicians didn't embrace nihilism.

It doesn't, however, have to be a choice between being an intellectual or being a dickhead – the choice Old Labour made when it came up with John Prescott, or New Labour when it came up with Ed "Give 'Em a Laptop" Balls. Seeing both of them popping up in news programmes as power changed hands last week was like watching a person age before one's eyes. The world was new and they weren't. The thing they vowed to go on fighting for nobody any longer wanted – not in those terms anyway. The new language being spoken belonged to men – neither dickheads nor intellectuals – whose time we thought had passed but who suddenly were here again: public school boys unabashed by the privileges education had conferred on them, unapologetic, burnished by advantages of birth and money. That such an old reality could present itself as a new one has been the most fascinating aspect of this election. What are they still doing here, such men? They were supposed to have been superseded long ago. We thought we had cleared the way for people of another sort entirely.

Noting its predominantly private school make-up, Lee Elliot Major of the Sutton Trust – a charity whose aim is to promote social mobility through education – expresses concern that the Liberal Conservative Cabinet "is highly unrepresentative". So whose fault is that? Ought the Tories to be less representative of themselves? Are the Lib Dems now shown to be as self-serving as their new partners? Or are we to blame – still servile in our souls, still doffing our caps to gentlefolk?

Or – and this is the explanation I favour – isn't their reappearance the final proof of a self-defeating contradiction at the heart of socialism itself? After 13 years of Labour, and many more years of grievously misguided tampering, not only with grammar schools but with the very principles of a humane education, relativising knowledge for fear of privileging truth, denying children an education in the name of not imposing one on them, have we not simply left the field open for Clegg and Cameron's return? They are not in power because they are monsters of deviance – the attacks on Clegg for acting politically this past week have been as absurd as anything in Beckett – nor are they in power because they are throwbacks for whom we entertain a sentimental hierarchical regard; they are in power because we have not come up with a sufficient number of people educationally equipped to seize it from them.

Social mobility through education is a wonderful ideal, but first we have to provide the education.

The irony is that the Tories, with or without the Social Democrats, are far more likely to facilitate this mobility through education than Labour in any of its guises. Michael Gove is the new Education Secretary. I confess to a liking for Michael Gove. He is a cultivated man and looks the way a cultivated man should look – always just a touch unkempt, cross-toothed and with a bit of a headache (I'm talking of impression, not fact), ironical, intellectually impatient, not quite inhabiting the space, as the two Cs occupy space, carved out for him by privilege. He is also, against all the prevailing orthodoxies, Arnoldian.

Education, he said recently, is about "introducing young people to the best that has been thought and written". And you can't get much more Arnoldian than that.

Think of it – "the best". And no "Who are you to be telling me what's best, sunshine?" To which the answer should always have been, "Your teacher, you little bastard, so sit down and listen." The fear of teaching "the best" because it is an expression of canonical authoritarianism that will ultimately stultify pupils is rooted neither in reason nor experience; the history of educated man shows that it does the very opposite, equipping the well-taught to disagree, to resist, even to overthrow, from a position of independence and strength. Myself, I hold the root and branch changes in educational thinking promised by Michael Gove to be every bit as as important, in the long run, as bringing down the deficit. Make of Clegg and Cameron what you will, but they persist against the odds because they are in possession of a culture which is no more theirs than ours, but which, thanks to a wicked ideology of principled self-disinheritance, we have ceded to them. Whoever would empower the disadvantaged must give them back the "best". Only then will we see men and women who don't look quite so archaically deserving in power.