Leading Article: Alors, Monsieur Straw, you're an example to us all

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The Independent Online
Glad tidings: Jack Straw is learning French. The Home Secretary is emerging from his years as a geek to become a fully-rounded human being. The deadly earnest masterer of political briefs has been liberated by the responsibilities of power to become a Renaissance Man. Or not.

Sadly, the real story is a little less heart-warming. Mr Straw has decided he needs to speak French for his job. He wants to talk, face-to-face and uninterpreted, to the French about football hooliganism, immigration policy and the like. Far from taking time off from his ministerial duties, this is an extension of them.

Still, it can only be good that ministers should be able to talk to their continental partners in their own languages, especially as Britain will hold the presidency of the European Union from January - which means there are only seven weeks to add to the paltry number of languages at the Cabinet's command. It is astute diplomacy too, assuaging the French fear of creeping American cultural hegemony. And a welcome relief from British linguistic arrogance. Only in Britain would it be commented on that the Prime Minister did not need headphones to listen to Jacques Chirac at last week's Canary Wharf news conference. But only in Britain would Mr Blair's ability to engage in fluent French conversation be mocked for the traces of "schoolboy French" in his accent - precisely the combination of national self-deprecation and snobbery which so inhibits the learning of languages in this country.

However, our politicians should not take up foreign languages in order simply to discharge their ministerial duties. The experience of learning French will be a good thing in itself for Mr Straw. Learning any language is commendable, although it is this newspaper's policy to encourage the learning of languages other than French - Spanish for instance, but even Latin is better than French, which has been promoted above its station.

All ministers should get themselves a hinterland. Some members of the Cabinet do indeed have unexpected interests in their personal lives, such as Robin Cook's passion for dressage (that's horses, not clothes) and Margaret Beckett's for caravanning. But most of them do lead sadly one- dimensional lives, as vividly shown by the inability of successive arts ministers to name films, books or plays they might have looked at since they left school.

It was not always thus: Mr Cook once wistfully cited a 19th-century predecessor as Foreign Secretary who spent two weeks in Switzerland reading books and writing one speech. Politics was essentially a part-time, flexi-time activity, practised by people who carried on other professions and who were accomplished in other walks of life. This is not to advocate the return of the amateur politician who concentrates on the big picture while civil servants do the real work. But there should be a happy medium.

More rounded people are needed everywhere. You do not have to be an admirer of Marx's early writings to think that Britain's long working hours are alienating. It is a feature of modern capitalism that too many people see their self-worth simply in terms of paid work. This is not simply about the desire of parents to spend more time with their children, it is about the quality of our lives and the wholeness of our persons. Think how our national life would be enhanced if Chris Evans took a part-time degree in philosophy. Or if Bernie Ecclestone had taken up jazz clarinet to dilute his obsession with fast cars. Or if Rupert Murdoch tried to write symphonies instead of trying to rule the world.

The trouble is a lack of credible polymathic role models. If someone excels in more than one field, like Jonathan Miller, they tend to be twice as resented as someone who is pre-eminent in only one. Congratulations, then, to Mr Straw for his part in bringing back the cult of the gifted amateur. Perhaps it is inevitable that politics should be dominated by driven, single-minded obsessives. But the logic of Mr Blair's style of government is that only the few members of the controlling inner circle need be full-timers. There are 100 ministers - far too many, and no one can believe that they have real work to do. Alan Clark's Diaries present a convincing picture of junior ministers as docile participants in a Civil Service make-work scheme. Since then, the New Labour machine has made it even more difficult for ministers even to think aloud. But they could engage actively in the arts, sciences and culture without needing to consult the Cabinet Office about straying on to Chris Smith's departmental brief. Let us have all ministers learning a language, or demonstrating that it is possible to start to play the piano in your forties or fifties. Why should they not all serve as renaissance role models for a healthier, more balanced society?

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