Matthew Norman: Bottom of the class, Mr Lammy

The higher education minister displays a psychosis-inducing complacency

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Assistant

£17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are a leading company in the field ...

Recruitment Genius: DBA Developer - SQL Server

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

£26041 - £34876 per annum: Recruitment Genius: There has never been a more exc...

Recruitment Genius: Travel Customer Service and Experience Manager

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing travel comp...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A pack of seagulls squabble over discarded food left on the beach at St Ives on July 28, 2015  

Number of urban seagulls in Britain nearly quadruples: Hide food and avoid chicks to stay in gulls’ good books

Tom Bawden
 

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice
Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen