Terence Blacker: Stupidity offers unrivalled rewards in modern Britain

Two candidates with a total of five GCSEs between them will takepart in the final of 'The Apprentice'
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The Independent Online

There is something simultaneously hilarious and dispiriting about middle England when it goes into the sort of ecstatic spasm of moral disapproval which it is experiencing at the moment. On one side, there is horror at Mark Oaten's much-delayed explanation that his sudden need for the company of rent-boys was caused by the fact that he was losing his hair. On the other, there is huffing and puffing about the Deputy Prime Minister's shameful seduction of an innocent 41 year-old and the fact that the silly old fool had "romped" - what a distressing image that word conjures up - with his lover on government property. Then there is a generalised disapproval of what has been going on in Westminster's hissing snake-pit of betrayal and opportunism.

The truth is that one has to be remarkably unworldly to be outraged by any of the diversions recently offered by our public servants. The brutality of politicians towards one another is what gets them out of bed in the morning. The adventures of Prescott and Tracey Temple have the rather sweet clumsiness, the desperate and furtive randiness, of a 1950s film starring Sid James and Dora Bryant. As for Oaten's unusual baldness therapy, anyone who has experienced what the American writer Nicholson Baker calls "the horror of hair loss" will know that strange things can happen - and that wives or girlfriends need to be unusually alert - when male pattern slaphead syndrome sets in unexpectedly.

As is so often the case, the scandal that has emerged from these revelations has nothing to do with sex. It is not the contents of that future bestseller The Diaries of Tracey Temple which are shocking, but the presentation of them. The brightly patterned lined notebooks which have destroyed the reputation of a senior politician might easily have belonged to a schoolgirl in her early teens. On the first page of the 2003 edition, written in coloured ink and in a babyish hand, are the words: "This diary belongs to Tracey Temple, age 40/41".

The contents are even more startling. Even if one assumes, perhaps over-generously, that the diary entries were never meant for publication, they are bewilderingly arch, and embarrassingly sub-literate. "We are well bizi," Tracey writes at one point. Meeting Andy Gilchrist ("very tasty") and a trades union delegation, she reports that she "cracked up coz I took them through a door straight into the toilet. Embarrassing or what".

At this point, it is worth reminding ourselves that the writer of these words is employed in the office of the Deputy Prime Minister of Great Britain. She has been cleared to read secret documents (what a wise decision that turned out to be). She is, as Sir Les Patterson might have said, John Prescott's right hand. And, to judge from every word that she has had published, she is utterly gormless.

Perhaps none of this should be a surprise. Ever since Jade Goody achieved the double distinction of being the dumbest and most successful character to appear on a reality television show, it has been clear that stupidity offers unrivalled rewards. It suggests commonsense, a capacity for being "grounded", for "living in the real world". Jade and Tracey have the most important qualifications of all. They have attended Hard Knocks College, the University of Life and have emerged with honours.

For some time, the Government has gone along with this idea, promoting the notion that education primarily exists as a way into the job market. Now this reductionist approach has been taken a step further by the hugely successful BBC series The Apprentice. Its presenter Alan Sugar, a self-made man, has gone on record as saying that he prefers to employ those who have left school early and have made their way in the world, and his programme has relentlessly pushed the same idea.

This week two candidates, with a total of five GCSEs between them, will take part in the final of The Apprentice. It will make great television and will doubtless encourage the kind of rough-diamond dynamism valued by Sugar. The problem is that it is presented as much more than that. Not passing exams, learning how to market yourself and your product, putting money and success before everything else are new, contemporary ideals.

The programme's finalists, Michelle Dewberry and Ruth Badger, summarise the approach perfectly. Qualifications only have a point "because people are prejudiced against people who don't have them", says Michelle. Ruth is clear about her ambitions. "At 16, I wanted a car and a certain salary. At 17, I wanted a house and a bigger salary. And so on."

A few old-fashioned souls might murmur that there is more to living a full life than acquisitiveness, that learning can provide a person with more than a path to career success, but that is not the spirit of the moment. "Sometimes I think that an excess of education can overwhelm the creative spark," a council member of the British Association of Women Entrepreneurs said at the weekend. A creative spark, from this entrepreneurial point of view, is only involved in creating money, just as literature only exists in sales literature and philosophy in a marketing philosophy, but business brilliance can and often does co-exist with a wider ignorance. Promoted by government and on television, it can play its own depressing part in the hectic stupidity of our well bizi modern lives.

terblacker@aol.com

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