Matthew Norman: Bottom of the class, Mr Lammy

The higher education minister displays a psychosis-inducing complacency

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Before we begin, a pre-emptive disclaimer. Please accept that I pose the ensuing quartet of questions with no intention to insult you. As
Independent readers, you are le crème de la crème of the intelligentsia. I know you know the answers, and ask them solely because of the light they cast on the quality of those who rule us.

Right, here we go. 1) What was the married name of the scientists Marie and Pierre who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903 for their research into radiation? 2) Which fortress was built in the 1370s to defend one of the gates of Paris, and was later used as a state prison by Cardinal Richelieu? 3) Who succeeded to the English throne aged nine on the death of his father Henry VIII in 1547? And 4) Which country's Rose Revolution of 2003 led to the resignation of President Edward Shevardnadze?

John Humphrys put these and others to higher education minister David Lammy, star of Tuesday's Today programme, on Celebrity Mastermind last December. How I resisted the ague of stupefaction the answers induced long enough to press the record button is a mystery. Raw courage, I guess. But thank God I did, because this general knowledge round is a godsend. Whether the performance of Mr Lammy, who cites "curiosity" among his likes, is sensible cause for jollity is for you to judge, but in a perverse way it cheers me up whenever the melancholy strikes.

All right, enough suspense. Here are Mr Lammy's answers. 1) Antoinette. The Nobel physics Laureates of 1903 were, according to our advanced learning supremo, Pierre and Marie Antoinette. If that seems a Curie-ous reply, stand by for 2). Versailles. Quite a swanky jail in which to await the guillotine, even by French revolutionary standards, but there it is.

Bastille our beating hearts, though, for here comes 3). Henry VII. Henry VIII was succeeded on the throne, by way of a tear in the fabric of space-time, not by his son Edward VI but his late sire. Mr Lammy shook his head despairingly at that one, but showed no remorse for 4). The country of which Mr Shevardnadze ceased to be president in 2003 was, he told us, having taken advantage of the extra thinking time gifted by the end-of-round beeps, Yugoslavia.

Now making every allowance for nerves caused by the black chair, we'll write off Antoinette as a slip of the tongue, and try to forget Versailles and the time-travelling Henry VII. Any residual stores of charity are drained, however, by 4). How could a minister of state, for higher education or paperclips, be unaware that Yugoslavia dissolved in the early 1990s? By what savage irony did he imagine that Europe's most vicious warfare since 1945 could be styled the "Rose Revolution"? How did that major global figure Shevardnadze, whose name could only come from Georgia (the former Soviet state, Mr L; not the one on Ray Charles's mind), pass him by?

If it seems incredible, it is all the more so because Mr Lammy has a Masters in law from Harvard, alma mater of President Obama with whom he claims friendship. Can any of us have such a stellar qualification and tend, to put it generously, towards the dim?

Yes we can, judging by Tuesday's Today interview. Although a presumably sated Mr Humphrys didn't conduct it, he was a Lammy to the slaughter all the same as an heroically patient Sarah Montague teased from him a performance to provoke the heavily tranquilised Zen master known to brother monks as "Old Softie" into pummelling the wall until the knuckles gushed blood.

Did the minister accept the argument of our universities, who have floated the idea of raising annual tuition fees to £5,000, that they need more money? "Well, I think the universities have done a piece of work which is about scenarios... within that piece of work... actually one of the scenarios is that it remains the same," he said. "The universities are rightly preparing for an independent review..."

But do you agree, asked Sarah, with the basic premise that they need more cash? "Look, I don't want to get into what will rightly be the scenarios when we begin the independent review. But I would say..." Yes but forget the review, she interrupted as exasperation finally began to flirt with her larynx, do you agree they need more money?

"Look," said Mr Lammy, understandably irritated himself now at being expected, as minister for higher education, to have an opinion about higher education, "it's a bit like asking a farmer whether he needs more land." Answers on the traditional postcard, please, you cryptographers out there. In the absence of the Enigma machine, Mr Lammy's Agrarian Code remains uncrackable to me.

He then accused Ms Monatague of pursuing him on the point not on behalf of school pupils who might want a steer as to whether they'll be able to afford the higher of education for which, lest I forgot to mention this, he is minister; but rather in a cynical BBC hunt for "banner headlines". Even by the standards of Mrs Bottomley in the dog days of Major, even compared to the "I've already been very clear..." obfuscatory gibberish spewed by Hazel Blears herself, this was a display of psychosis-inducing obtuseness and complacency. I'd call it a calculated insult to the public's intelligence, of the sort disclaimed above, but it's hard to accuse someone who answered "Henry VII" to 3) of being able to calculate anything at all.

How did it come to this? How did this country come to be governed by people whose knowledge of everything from fourth-form history to popular culture, sport and even cheese (the blue variety served with port, he posited, is Red Leicester) verges on the non-existent?

So many questions, so few answers. If whether higher education needs more funding or not is yet another to stump David Lammy, so be it. It's in excellent company. But if our universities should shortly join every other once-revered British institution on the one-way journey past the U-bend, we should be able to make a fair old stab at answering why.

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