The Sketch: Alienation becomes weapon of debate

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The Independent Online

If you're feeling a bit down, a bit low, a bit wan, may I prescribe Culture questions followed by a Hewitt statement? You'll be spitting tacks in no time.

The support given to "ayleet" athletes is cheered on all sides, with confident arguments for scholarships, dedicated training, special schools and selection by ability. But apply that to academic ability and a frost develops in the air. The Daily Mail beside me in the gallery spat a tack into the Tories, wondering why on earth they weren't making that point. We were both surprised when Derek Wyatt, the young, left-wing firebrand, sprang to his feet to help the side along, arguing (practically) for sporting grammar schools with testing at ages seven and 11. Well done Derek! Enormous courage!

Is it because the working classes have no intellectual abilities that we don't like to give the clever ones special attention? Is it only by brawn that our coal-in-the-bath brethren can rise from their degraded conditions? Is that the reasoning? It seems an odd thing for the left to embrace as a core value. Will working-class youth necessarily disgrace itself in philosophy lectures, gobbing at the podium and making disgusting pelvic gestures at the lecturer?

The minister dismissed the assertion that the number of PE teachers was to be cut by a fifth next year with the remark: "It does not for one minute detract from the fact that 64 per cent of schools have two hours of sport a week!" Was she ashamed of the fact that public schools have two hours of sport a day? Surely.

Patricia Hewitt has a new way of saying "improvement" (she hangs on the "o" like she's trying to frighten children). It makes you want to tear your own head off.

Mrs Hewitt said her plans were more market but less market, and more local but more regional, and more hospital care but more home-care. Her plans now require people to look after themselves, considering what a bog the Government's made of it. That sounded sensible, until she went into the People Pilots and health MoTs, and the "drivers of improvement"; presumably it's the same old musical chairs with a bit more private sector. "I know this will be warmly welcomed on this side of the House," she said to a thunderous silence.

In reply, Andrew Lansley waffled. He needs a waffle iron. So do we. What about that diabetic retinopathy, for instance, we're 20 per cent down on that. And did you know that one hospice in Norfolk has had to make 25 staff redundant? He chucks it about so much it's hard to keep out of the way. The oligarchy's most important weapon is the irritation and alienation it inspires in its audience. French intellectuals have discerned this: if we understand what they say, they lose. Lansley and Hewitt never lose.